Review: -isq at Pizza Express Dean St

Irene Serra at Pizza Express Dean St
Photo Credit: Sofia Wilde

Review: -isq, Pizza Express Jazz Club, London  Wed. 30th Jan 2013
(CD launch:  –isq,Cheespeas Records. Review by Alison Bentley)

  Modern jazz musicians often have indie rock influences in their playing. Jazz singers less so. Italian vocalist Irene Serra fronts this fine band: she’s paid her dues singing bebop and Latin music, studying jazz in London, and working her way to the finals at the Shure Montreux Jazz Competition. On this gig she sang her confessional lyrics with a jazz musicality and a kind of rock attitude and intensity, which drew you into the complex songs from their new album,  -isq. The lower case name itself recalls e.s.t and the musical influence is equally strong.

  Some songs had an immediate appeal: This Bird Has Flown started with a punky energy, the quiet voice over double-stopped bass with a daring dissonance. Then John Crawford reached across the piano to deaden some of the strings,  Esbjörn Svensson-style, using the piano as a gamelan-like percussion instrument. Irene’s deep vibrato sometimes had a rock inflection, like Chrissie Hynde. Her delicate improvising had an understated quality like her erstwhile teacher, Tiziana Ghiglione, staccato over a big groove. Ill Wind was in 7/4 with a delicate drum ‘n’ bass feel but sung with such finesse that you hardly noticed. There was real excitement: a gentle section with a bell-like repeated piano note behind the delicate tracery of the vocal solo, interacting with some sweet Jarretty piano, before a huge dramatic crescendo and massive applause.

  There were elements of folk. Pictures on My Mind had a 6/8 folksong feel with exquisite piano arpeggios high behind the deep vocals. Etude: a Study in You and Me had a Chopin-esque piano intro. Serra’s fast breathy vibrato had something of the French chanteuse, with a crackling timbre like Amy Winehouse. The piano solo was particularly memorable, crossing the loose beat with affecting pentatonic phrases and real virtuosity. Crawford has recorded some Eastern European tunes, and some of those rhythms were in evidence on the gig, especially in the tour de force finale Perpetual, positively Bulgarian in its rhythmic complexity.

  Walking Wounded evoked the work of classically-influenced Swedish pianist Martin Tingvall, with its spacey chords and rock cadences. Richard Sadler’s fine bass solo was melodic and unhurried over susurrating cymbals. Serra almost hummed her vocal solo with a mixture of élan and intimacy. Catchy melodic phrases were perfectly reflected in the words- as Serra stretched out the cool bluesy long note: ‘…I’m walking wounded..’ you believed her. If Norah Jones had sung with e.s.t it might have sounded like this.

  There was an art rock sensibility in some songs: Johnny’s Fallen had a dark menace and the voice recalled Nico in its nihilistic but beautiful intensity, in the repeated phrase ‘falling away’. Bassist Sadler worked until fairly recently with the award-winning Neil Cowley Trio and this tune had Cowley’s high energy mix of jazz, rock and minimalist classical piano. The Loneliest of Dreams began as a ballad of lost love, sung in delicate unison with the bass over fluttering cymbals. The young women on the front row were completely absorbed. The tempo built with some thrilling dubstep-influenced drumming over floating altered chords. Chris Nickolls played impossibly fast drum rolls, lightly, yet filling every space, using electronic drum styles to intensify the groove, firmly in the Tony Williams creative tradition. Robert Glasper’s arrangements for Gretchen Parlato came to mind.

&nbspSome songs were even better live than on CD. TV Face had a funky 11/8 groove, with oblique dark piano chords and a tense tune drawn from melodic minor modes. Simple Things is the other song I can’t stop listening to- it manages to be uplifting and dissonant at the same time. Crawford is much in demand as a Latin pianist  as well as jazz (he’s worked with everyone from Airto Moreira to Gilad Aztmon) and there’s some tango woven into the drum ‘n’ bass grooves. These superb musicians have brought together the musical styles they love with emotional authenticity. Jazz is always reinventing itself, and –isq is deliciously original.

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