REVIEW: Irene Serra/ISQ (Ode to Myself single launch) at the Pheasantry (2018 EFG LJF)

Irene Serra and Richard Sadler
Photo credit: Bojidar Chkerov

Irene Serra/ISQ (Ode to Myself single launch)
(Pizza Express Pheasantry. 22 November 2018. EFG London Jazz Festival. Review by Alison Bentley)

Jazz bands often have changing line-ups, so it’s a rare pleasure to find a quartet that’s been together since before its first eponymous album in 2012, and is still developing new ideas. Their arrangements draw on jazz, rock and electronic music, using the skills of the band’s individuals to the full, in music which is uniquely theirs.

The strongly melodic Pictures On My Mind and This Bird Has Flown from album no. 1 settled them into the gig. Irene Serra’s vocal sounded light but confident (a little like her mentor, Italian singer Tiziana Ghiglioni). She took solos without drawing attention to them, almost as if singing intimately to herself, not wanting to break the atmosphere of the song. The second piece moved from its dissonant rocky bass groove (Richard Sadler) to an inventive piano solo from John Crawford. He leaned back and forth to deaden strings inside the piano, varying the tone – often just one note – highlighting the rhythm. Although you could hear some e.s.t. in the mix, the quartet don’t use electronic enhancements – they rely on acoustic instruments.

ISQ have a third album out soon, and some new songs were given an airing. Serra’s lyrics are often confessional in tone. Stone was about love bringing feelings of inadequacy, and Crawford’s gorgeous voicings wrung emotion from the simple chords. There were hints of French chanson as the voice crescendoed, and committed to a strong note. “When words fail, music speaks,” said Serra: in Lost Where We Belong, about her mother’s death, her voice reached new emotional depth. Chris Nickolls’ drumming was full of detail – apparently free, but with a groove appearing, like an image in an abstract painting.

Walking Wounded and Paper Doll from the first two albums had indie rock influences. At times, Serra could even sound like a little like Chrissie Hynde. The arrangements were pleasingly detailed; the piano and bass chased each other’s lines, or emphasised seemingly random beats to create a counter melody. Repeated minimalist piano chords had a jazz-pop feel, like Reuben James’ accompaniments for Sam Smith.

They seemed to play even more freely in the second set. The new single Ode to Myself had a darkly cathartic effect; its springy bass solo began to walk firmly behind unrestrained drums. Reflections had bright, high almost oriental piano hooks strung above the deep vocal. The precarious time signature fell into a rock chorus, then high, daring cries and whispers from Serra’s solo. Nickolls’ drumming was free-spirited and influenced by electronic drum patterns, reaching a pitch of intensity. Serra sang Björk’s Jóga with a quiet clarity over rootsy bass.

“Everybody take a deep breath!” she said, as they launched into Orbit, a new tune with a patina of drum and bass in 5/4. Nickolls’ solo was incendiary, with its Aphex-Twin-esque, flickering, ambient snare beats. Loving A Stranger seesawed between tension and release: two surprising chords that sounded as if they could have been sampled from a longer sequence. The piano dripped simple notes into the understated funky groove. In Étude: A Study In You And Me the vocals cut sweetly across Schubertian arpeggios until Crawford erupted into an extraordinary solo, as if he’d been saving up everything for that moment. The irresistible chorus of Zion left us wanting more, and stayed in the memory long after the gig.

ISQ’s melodies and arrangements have a way of getting under your skin. This gig felt free, relaxed and expressive with new levels of experimentation.

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