Zara McFarlane is ostensibly a jazz singer. But the UK vocalist’s influences range from the reggae she heard growing up in her Jamaican family’s Essex/London homestead to American R&B and Afro Cuban rhythms. McFarlane’s sophomore effort, If You Knew Her (released like its predecessor via Gilles Peterson’s Brownswood label), may be “jazz,” but transcends easy categorization with as lovely and intimate a song cycle as you’ll hear this year. Here she shares a few thoughts on a handful of records that changed her life.
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1. Michael Jackson - Off The Wall (Epic, 1979)
Zara McFarlane: As a child I used to go to my aunt’s house and sit and listen to this album from start to finish on vinyl. I remember learning all the lyrics from the cover and dancing around her house. I would listen to all the backing vocals as well as pick up on the different vocal riffs he had in the production.
2. Luther Vandross - Give Me The Reason (Epic, 1986)
Zara McFarlane: My uncle used to send me cassette tapes to listen to as child, often Luther Vandross on one side and Michael Jackson on the other. I used to play this album continuously. I think it was listening to Luther and his backing vocalists that I learnt the art of a good tone and how to sing high notes!
3. Junior Murvin - "Police and Thieves" (Wildflower, 1976)
Zara McFarlane: This is one of the most memorable songs of my childhood as it was always played at family parties. For many years I used to think it was a female vocalist as the melody is so high. It is the fat bass line and backing vocals that would instantly get me on the dance floor.
4. Dexter Gordon - "The Peacocks" (Columbia, 1986)
Zara McFarlane: I discovered this song in my 20s. This rendition of the song just stopped me in my tracks and required me to listen. I found the melody awe-inspiring and still believe it to be one of the most hauntingly beautiful tunes I have ever heard.
5. The Creole Choir of Cuba - Tande La (Real World, 2011)
Zara McFarlane: I first experienced this music at a live concert. It moved me so much with its pulsating rhythms and yearning vocal lines. I love the concoction of the Creole influence showcasing different languages and rhythms of the diaspora. I loved the fact that it is purely percussion and vocals with no tuned instruments that creates such exciting music, which is equally moving and heartfelt.