Zara McFarlane: Sweet Whispers: Celebrating Sarah Vaughan review – terrific tribute to a jazz legend

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The great African American double bass player Richard Davis used to note that it had been “the university of Sarah Vaughan” – his life on the road from 1957-63 with the jazz singer dubbed The Divine One – that taught him everything worth knowing about timing, improvisation and making every sound count.

The artwork for Sweet Whispers: Celebrating Sarah VaughanView image in fullscreen

Vaughan’s range and breath control, effortlessly cool spontaneity, and the telling punctuation of her phrasing have inspired all manner of singers for 60 years or more, and still do – including Mobo award-winning vocalist Zara McFarlane. In Vaughan’s centenary year, McFarlane brings personal muses drawn from London’s multi-stylistic music scene and her own Jamaican heritage to bear on 10 Vaughan classics and one original.

Accompanied by a crisply hip quartet led by former Kansas Smitty’s House Band reeds hotshot Giacomo Smith, and including young drums star Jas Kayser, she begins her fifth album with the early Vaughan hits Tenderly and Mean to Me, and continues with a song from the legend’s last studio recording – Obsession, from 1987’s Brazilian Romance.

McFarlane doesn’t mimic her idol, but her resonant low tones and airily skittish upper range reflect Vaughan’s immense technical and emotional arc, while the band impart both a generic perspective on the past, and bring a springy contemporary animation to its reinvention. McFarlane’s note-bends and plummeting long sounds pay homage to Vaughan’s bewitched 1947 version of Tenderly; Mean to Me almost offhandedly catches the resigned confusion of a controlling partner’s victim; and Marvin Gaye’s Inner City Blues (recorded by Vaughan in 1971) is a stealthy soul-groover that suits McFarlane’s earthiness perfectly. Her church-music youth fuels the gospel-y gallop of Great Day, a rhythmically jagged urgency drives Obsession, and McFarlane’s own hymnally reverential Sweet Whispers closes out a fine reminder of both her own open-minded musicality, and her model’s precious legacy.

Also out this month

African-American bassist/composer and multi-instrumentalist William Parker, a septuagenarian innovator often compared to Charles Mingus, releases the faithfully all-acoustic Heart Trio (AUM Fidelity) – a set on which he is joined by his long-time partners Cooper-Moore (xylophone, harp) and Hamid Drake (percussion). Sonorous free-jazzy flute swoops, tonally ducking-and-diving percussion, and vocal chants underpinned by glinting harplike sounds fuel an enigmatically grooving session that at times is almost funky.

Israeli saxophonist Oded Tzur, whose tone borrows from the ghostly soundworld of India’s bansuri flute, brings a surging new urgency to his often meditative music with My Prophet (ECM) (featuring some dazzling piano improv from Nitai Hershkovits).

And young UK jazz/post-rock outfit Glasshopper (which includes Scottish saxophonist Jonathan Chung and drummer Corrie Dick) display their Polar Bear-to-Radiohead versatility in guitar/sax clamours, ambient murmurings and jaunty rockers, with I’m Not Telling You Anything (Clonmell Jazz Social).


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