Vocal jazz gets a justifiably hard time these daysendless rehashes of "the Great American Songbook" or other Fifties showtunes, with high production values but little originality and even less to say. Enough to make any self-respecting reviewer power down their laptop you might think, but then out of the blue come gems like this from the improbably monikered -isq.
-isq are a quartet who draw inspiration from jazz, taking it as their starting point but allowing other influences to percolate into the brew. It comes as little surprise then that the band members all have CVs that, while rooted in jazz, spread far and wide across the genres. So, for example, bassist Richard Sadler
was a founding member of the Neil Cowley
Trio but has also played for Paul Weller, and pianist John Crawford
has worked with Jason Yarde
and Gilad Atzmon but also Bjork.
The first thing that strikes you about the album, though, is the balance struck between the wounded melancholy of Irene Serra
's wonderfully expressive voice and the overall ensemble. The song "Falling Stars" is simply stunning, the soulful vocal and lyric supported by the instrumentation to show the first flushes of the relationship, that are deliciously undercut by the pay off line ..."we burn too bright, we aim too high...." This is music by and for people who live for their passions, but who are grown up enough to realise that life is rarely straightforward, bumps in the road going with the territory. Little details are important, so listen to the way that Sadler adds emphasis to the "then you said" line here before coming close to making his bass weep on the solo, or the way that the snap of Chris Nickolls
' drum cues the return of Crawford's uplifting piano on the "follow my heart" verse. In short "Falling Stars" is just gorgeous and if there were any justice it would be so ubiquitous that postmen whistled it on their rounds.
That said, "Falling Stars" is far from the only gem on this album of consistently high quality compositions and performances. "Zion," for instance, has another earworm of a chorus the poetic lyric thankfully describing how a loved one is the spiritual centre of the singer's world, rather than providing a sombre geo-political analysis of the Middle Eastern situation. There's something about the use of acoustic instruments that lends a painterly air to the pieces, whether that be explicitly as on "Still Life"'s reflection on a troubled relationship, or in the way the band provide colour in their surge into a piano-led outpouring of emotion on "As I Lay You Down." The heartfelt lyrical maturity shown on the album is another plus point, showing the strength to acknowledge bad times but crucially to look beyond them and find hope for the future. Take "Tears of a Clown"'s exhortation to "Break all the pieces of your world to find new ground" and the hopeful ..."so the darkest of places has room for a light...." While not quite comparable to Smokey Robinson's lyric of the same name it remains a great song and comes from a genuine place unlike so much of the 'will this do?' lyrical drivel that passes for art in these times.
-isq are rightly ambitious to reach beyond a pure jazz audience and were "Too" to reach the ears of, say, a Gilles Peterson it remains a distinct possibility. Their openness to other forms of music beyond jazz, while staying true to their jazz roots, freshens the mix letting some light in to the dusty halls of what passes for vocal jazz in the 21st Century. With albums such as this and that from Emily Saunders there is every chance that the prospects for good vocal jazz are much improveda turnaround that is surely long overdue. Highly recommended.