REVIEW: @ZaraMcFarlane gig at The Sage, Gateshead

In many ways Jazz often gets away from me.  It’s something that I’m only just starting to get interested into seriously. I listen to a little Coltrane and love Mile Davis’ Kind of Blue but at times I struggle to appreciate the faster, more improvised, off the wall instrumental and vocal tangents that can occur.

In order to tackle this problem, I’m always looking to gain a better understanding of the genre through more accessible means.  I came across Zara McFarlane on such a search of the Newcastle/Gateshead venue, The Sage.  Learning she was MOBO-nominated and Giles Peterson-backed, the choice of gig was made easy and tickets quickly purchased for the second, and smaller, but no less impressive hall.

The gig opened with ‘Her eyes,’ one of the early tracks on her new album on Peterson’s Brownswood Recordings label: ‘If you know her’, a steady warm up which saw pianist Joe Armon-Jones play out his first of a number of mesmerising solos.  The night really got into full swing however, with the sultry ‘You’re going to get me in trouble’.  Bathed in simple but dramatic ruby lighting, the quintet oozed class as McFarlane’s bluesy vocals swung through the hall during one of the highlights of the night, which also firmly introduced the audience to saxophonist, Binker Golding.

Zara MFarlane herself cuts a confident, endearing and soulful figure that radiates her enjoyment of playing on stage with her friends, who she credits throughout for their musicianship.  Both sets of their hour and a half performance are punctuated with the stories behind the music, firstly with the very personal ‘More than mine’ in which she muses over an ex-lover’s new partner.

The second, darker tale is about witnessing a prostitute whilst on tour in Italy and culminates in the song ‘Woman of the Olive Grove’.  It’s a nice inclusion to the night and adds to the intimate feeling of the surroundings.  This would be my first time in Room 2 and I think I prefer it to the larger hall for this reason.

The acoustics in the smaller room are no less impressive either, enveloping the captivated audience with the hypnotic rhythms and jazz vibes emanating from the five friends.  My highlight of the night came in the second set, with the song: ‘Love’, which seemed almost like a duet between MacFarlane and her pianist, it was beautiful, haunting and melodic featuring Armon-Jones at his best on the night.

In a way, to say this was just a Zara McFarlane gig, would be to do an injustice to the musicians accompanying her, Max Luthert (Bass), Binker Golding (Sax), Moses Boyd (Drums), and Joe Armon-Jones (Piano), who commanded attention individually but excelled when at full tilt in unison.

There were a couple of moments that tested, not my enjoyment of the night, but my understanding of the Jazz to its limits.  A telling hand squeeze, a wordless expression of ‘what is happening?’ from my better half told me that that I wasn’t alone on the edge of comprehension.  But, whether it was a vocal scat/riff, a psychedelic, eyebrow knotting-solo from Golding or one of Luthert’s expertly meandering bass lines, it all added to an excellent, musical mind-expanding evening.

Quite frankly, if I could play like these guys, I would give up talking and communicate only through the medium of Jazz.

An authority on which, I’m definitely not, but I don’t think you need to be to appreciate Zara McFarlane et al, of whom I am now unquestionably a fan.  I would travel further and pay more to see the same performance again.  My only complaint is that there were no proper records to buy after the gig, only CD’s.  I had to buy the LP this morning from Rough Trade.

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