Irene Serra’s -isq lift off at Pizza Express album launch

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Squeezed into a packed house, last night I watched this refreshingly different jazz band present their latest album, -isq too. Milan-born singer Irene Serra has a strong stage presence and a compelling vocal tone, which she uses to great effect on original songs that defy categorisation. Serra’s simple but effective lyrics and melodies have been thoughtfully arranged with bassist Richard Sadler and pianist John Crawford without a trace of affectation or sentimentality, and as such there is both a rawness and a delicacy to each tune.

They opened with ‘Picture Perfect’, contrasting Serra’s lower register with the twinkling upper register of the piano. I detected a definite nod to Joni Mitchell, both in the writing and the style of playing, sometimes even shades of Nick Drake, but Serra wont have that their music is melancholic, declaring that she’s quite a cheerful soul really. There is however, an unmistakable sense of loss and regret lurking at the core of their work, which is lifted by the confident, playful musicianship and the deftness of Chris Nickolls’ drumming, so that the overall effect is anything but dreary or self-indulgent.

‘This Bird has Flown’ showcased their combined talents beautifully: bass and drums led, the tune sitting awkwardly against the harmony, making for pensive music, patient and ruminatory, even when Crawford joined in, adding sounds produced by plucking strings inside the piano. During the second set, in response to a request from Serra’s mother who was in the audience, Serra asked Crawford to play a solo version of the lovely Italian tune by Bruno Martino, ‘Estaté’, which they segued into one of their own. Another song not on the album was ‘Angel’, which moved with grace and ease through a nocturnal landscape, its fragility was beguiling and paved the way for an eloquent solo from Crawford. As he worked his way through its darker harmony and back to a simple pedal note, Sadler picked out the same note on bass, preparing the ground for a freer repeat of the lyrics.

Deciding to allow themselves a little more latitude than they’d perhaps planned with the set list, they went off-piste midway through the second set, to tackle a trickily rhythmic tune intended as an unlikely Christmas single a few years back, where Serra showed that she is easily as competent musician as the rest of her band. The penultimate number, ‘Light and Shade’, was probably their most remarkable performance of the evening, however. It’s made of powerful, heady stuff, and has an insistent, urgent quality that the other songs didn’t quite reveal, allowing Serra (with Sadler adding backing vocals) to really mean the song when she sang it, in both senses of the word, before her trio take it into even more tumultuous territory bordering on free jazz. If their future were to head off in this direction, you can sense a good few awards and an international tour in the offing.

– Sarah Chaplin

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