by Ian Mann
February 04, 2013
Ian Mann enjoys a live performance by this new quartet fronted by vocalist and lyricist Irene Serra and takes a look at their eponymous debut album.
-isq, The Edge Arts Centre, Much Wenlock, Shropshire, 01/02/2013.
-isq, pronounced “isk” is a new quartet fronted by vocalist Irene Serra and featuring former Neil Cowley Trio bassist Richards Sadler. The rest of the group comprises of pianist John Crawford-whose excellent Latin flavoured solo album “Ulia River Of Time” has recently been the subject of a Jazzmann review- and rising star drummer Chris Nickolls. The young drummer recently appeared on the album “Home Thoughts” by the late Michael Garrick’s Lyric Ensemble and he and Crawford have both played in the band of singer Katriona Taylor. Nickolls will shortly be touring the UK with saxophonist Tommaso Starace performing music from the new album “Simply Marvellous” Starace’s homage to the music of the late, great pianist and composer. Michel Petrucciani.
-isq’s music consists entirely of original songs co-written by the three instrumentalists in the band and with all the lyrics written by singer Irene Serra. Although some of the words inhabit standard romance and relationship territory Serra’s lyrics aren’t just the usual “Moon in June” stuff, there’s a real intelligence and poetic sense and a highly personalised world vision. Also she’s not afraid to tackle darker subject matter, the song “Johnny’s Fallen” was inspired by the Columbine massacre and represents Serra’s attempts to get inside the head of a serial killer.
The group’s eponymous début album was released in 2012 on the Cheesepeas record imprint and the group performed all of it tonight albeit in a differing running order to the album. I’ll admit that I wasn’t too sure about the album when I first gave it a spin after it dropped through my letterbox. However as is so often the case I found that I was far more able to appreciate the quality of the songs after viewing them through the prism of live performance. Also it made a refreshing change to see a vocalist having the confidence to sing her own songs rather than falling back on standards and the overworked “Great American Song Book”. I relish hearing new music and making fresh discoveries but it seems to me there are too many jazz fans who are content to listen to the same old standards over and over again. Whatever happened to the “sound of surprise” ? Personally I wouldn’t care if I never heard “Autumn Leaves” or “All Of Me” ever again. A controversial view I know, but I’d welcome comments on the subject.
Anyway rant over and on with tonight’s music. The group began with “Ill Wind”, actually the opening track on the album. A freshly shorn Richard Sadler (gone is the ponytail of the NCT days) ushered the tune in on bass subsequently joined by Crawford and Nickolls. It was immediately apparent that this was a particularly well balanced and integrated trio with a particular aptitude for accompanying singers. Having said that it would also be intriguing to hear them make a purely instrumental album, on the evidence of Crawford’s solo recording I’m sure it would work very well.
That’s not to take anything away from Serra who gave an assured and confident performance and delivered her material with a high degree of technical skill. She was also a good visual focus for the band clad in a low cut dress of vivid red with a short, flared skirt (hell, I sound like a fashion correspondent here!). Serra is an exotic creature with a Danish father and Sicilian mother who was raised in Copenhagen then lived in Milan for four years before moving to London twelve years ago. She now describes herself as an adopted Londoner with a fondness for PG Tips but still exudes an easy Latin charm.
“Etude; A Study in You And Me” began with a passage of solo piano from the excellent Crawford, his percussive playing full of Latin inflections. The song was an intriguing mix of introspective lyrics and driving rhythms with Serra also delivering soaring wordless vocals, this aspect of her singing, including more obvious “scatting”, is an important part of her performance.
The lovely ballad “Walking Wounded” is a song about the vicissitudes of life and the ability to rise above them. Serra delivered a warm performance of the song above Sadler’s deep bass undertow and Nickolls’ gently brushed grooves. Sadler’s languidly resonant bass solo above Crawford’s sympathetic chording revealed a lyrical side to his playing that was rarely revealed in the Cowley group. We were to hear more from him as a soloist later, -isq certainly seems to allow him a greater space and freedom than he enjoyed with his previous employer.
“TV Face” was a clever song which saw Serra questioning modern technology and its alienating effects, posing the question “does technology make us closer?” and positing the answer “Maybe not”. Kicked off by Crawford’s solo piano intro the tune featured a further bass solo from Sadler, this in time in a funkier vein above the prompting of Nickolls’ crisp drum grooves and Crawford’s urgent piano comping.
The as yet unrecorded ballad “If I Can’t Have You” combined lyricism with a subtle blues flavouring with Crawford’s beautifully lyrical solo taking the instrumental honours.
The first set closed with “This Bird Has Flown”, a tune released as a single and one which Serra was keen to distance from The Beatles’ “Norwegian Wood”. Introduced by Sadler at the bass the first verse featured bass and voice only before Nickolls’ colourful brushed grooves and the sound of Crawford’s dampened piano strings combined with Sadler to create an infectious rhythm above which Serra scatted and soared. Despite the pop inflected verses there’s probably a bit too much jazz content in the tune for it to have a realistic chance of bothering the pop charts. -isq cover many bases but jazz is an essential part of their agenda with the group eager to leave spaces in their songs for spontaneous improvisation.
The second set began with the aforementioned “Johnny’s Fallen”, a dramatic piece that began with dense piano chords, grainy arco bass and atmospheric cymbal scrapes. Serra derived her initial inspiration for the song from Lionel Shriver’s book “We Need To Talk About Kevin” and her words and singing combined well with the ensemble playing to create a convincing portrayal that made effective use of dynamics as the music ebbed and flowed. The following “Simple Things” then offered brighter, breezier fare with gently propulsive rhythms and a rather less weighty choice of subject matter.
Crawford’s improvised piano intro that made extensive use of the pianist’s strong left hand presaged the ballad “Unforgettable You”, a song of regret and lost love with Crawford later delivering a solo of great lyricism within the main body of the tune. (It’s not to be confused with Irving Gordon’s 1951 song “Unforgettable”, famously a huge hit for Nat King Cole).
The next piece was unannounced but logic dictates that it must have been “Pictures On My Mind”, the second track on the quartet’s début album, sung by Serra with a profound sense of involvement as she enhanced the impact of her words with a series of subtly dramatic hand gestures.
Next came “The Loneliest Of Dreams”, the piece that closes the album. The tune began quietly with Serra’s wistful verses before Nickoll’s insistent grooves kick started a livelier second section characterised by soaring vocals and a sparkling Crawford piano solo.
However -isq were not quite done yet and rounded off a successful evening’s work with the as yet unrecorded “Perpetual”, a song distinguished by tongue twisting lyrics and churning rhythms with Crawford delivering a dazzling solo, arguably his best of the night.
There was to be no encore, a crowd of around forty was seated cabaret style and although the group was well received there wasn’t quite enough sustained applause to induce the musicians back to the stage. Nonetheless I thought this was a pretty good turnout on a cold February night to hear a brand new band and the group themselves seemed happy enough afterwards.
Subsequent listens to the album have found me enjoying it more and more. This is a strong collection of intelligent, original songs that suggests that the group has a long term future Serra is a refreshingly individual presence on a crowded jazz vocal scene and the instrumentalists seem to function particularly well as a unit. Sadler told me that gigs have been hard to come by in the current economic climate but tonight’s performance suggested that there’s a future for -isq providing they can continue to spread the word.
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