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Matthew Ruddick

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Saturday, 05 September 2015 06:27

-isq - Too

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isq return with a fine second album, and confirm they are more than the sum of their parts. 

The quirky band name is pronounced ‘isk’, but stands for the Irene Serra Quartet. Too, as you will probably guess, is their second album, and was released earlier this year. It’s also one of the best original jazz vocal albums I’ve heard in some time. 

Irene Serra, the band’s charismatic singer, was born in Milan, grew up in Denmark, and moved to the UK in 1999. She is well known on the London jazz scene, and is a regular performer at the likes of Ronnie Scott’s and the 606 Club. The remainder of the quartet comprises Richard Sadler on bass, John Crawford on piano and Chris Nickolls on drums. Richard Sadler will be familiar to many KoJ readers, as one of the founding members of the Neil Cowley Trio. He is also a respected session musician, and has played with the likes of Paul Weller and Tom Jones. Crawford is a highly accomplished pianist, with a jazz and Latin background, and has also worked with numerous pop musicians, including Bjork. Chris Nickolls is a inventive drummer who has been active in jazz and world music for the last fifteen years.

Given the band’s background and experience, -isq was always going to be a group, rather than just a backing band for the singer, and so it proves. Irene Serra writes the lyrics, and sometimes the melody, but on other occasions the musicians would compose a tune, and send it to her as a demo, which would be passed back and forth. Richard Sadler confirms that writing the lyrics was perhaps the hardest part of the process. “Finding a melody then fitting words to a fairly brisk tune with a 23/8 time signature is never going to be a walk in the park!”

Listening to the wonderful songs on Too, one might assume that this is not a jazz album in the traditional sense, allowing room the musicians to solo. But that would be a misleading impression, as there was plenty of improvisation involved in the composition process, and the new songs had also been developed on stage, gradually evolving over time. It’s also worth noting that all of the musicians come from ‘song’ backgrounds, which helps to explain why this process works so well for the band.

The opening track, Reflections, is built on a simple but effective piano motif from John Crawford. Serra’s lyric hints at vulnerability, a side of her that was not meant to be seen, and this is reflected – if you’ll excuse the pun – in her singing, which is powerful and emotional. Falling Stars skips along, propelled by drummer Chris Nickolls. The song is about emotions felt in the early stage of a love affair, but to Serra’s credit, the lyrics never descend into cliché. The song also features a gorgeous solo by Richard Sadler, whose subtle playing helps to underpin these great tunes.

Secret Garden has more of a rock feel to it, but still finds the space for a piano solo, before Still Life slows the pace once again with its melancholic intro. The sadness of the music seeps into the lyrics, with Serra admitting that she’s “trying so hard to be better, to be alone.” 

As I Lay You Down starts with shimmering piano. Serra highlights the breakdown of a relationship. “Suddenly I see the child inside the man, and something breaks inside of me.” After a few minutes, the music and singing fade, and it feels as though the song will end, but the hurt and rage have built up, and the song reignites, her voice soaring above the music to powerful effect. 

Tears Of A Clown is an original, not a Motown cover. Whilst there’s obviously an underlying sadness to the song, Serra’s lyrics help to draw the listener in. I loved the opening line - “sometimes the little things, come tumbling down,” which immediately sets the scene for the song that follows. Zion is the album’s single – the striking promotional video can be seen on the band’s website and YouTube – before the defiant Light And Shade brings the album to a close.

It’s hard to describe what makes Too such a fine album. Serra’s singing is superb, perhaps at its most effective when she sounds bruised and vulnerable, but equally capable of light and shade, whilst her lyrics are excellent, and contain some evocative descriptions. The contrast between her deep, rich voice and the lightness of pianist John Crawford’s touch is also a contributing factor. But these are, without exception, quite memorable tunes, which will burn their way into your head with repeated listens. This goes back to the song backgrounds that brought these musicians together, and reinforces the view that –isq is very much a group – and more than the sum of its parts.   


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