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“ISQ are a melting pot of genres – jazz, pop, acoustic and experimental – which all blend together to entrancing effect” JazzFM ISO (Irene Serra on vocals/electronics, Richard Sadler on double bass, Naadia Sheriff piano, and Chris Nickolls on drums) are celebrating their 10 year anniversary this year since the release of their debut album with a string of live dates around the UK this summer including Pizza Express Jazz Club Soho on Wednesday 8th June. Their second studio album “Too” was a Time Out London Critics Choice in 2015 and has seen them firmly establish a reputation as an emerging force in both creativity and performance. Their third release “Requiem For The Faithful” marked their first ever UK tour in 2019 with 16 dates across the country. Their latest album, “Requiem For The Faithful 2.0: The Remixes”, is a compilation of remixed songs from the original LP featuring award winning DJs and producers from around the world, has been released on 21st May 2021.
Hi ISQ, it’s lovely to chat with you! You’re a critically acclaimed London quartet that blends exquisite jazz-pop melodies with compelling lyrics and Nordic Jazz sensibility. You’re also working on your fifth album, which will be released in autumn 2023, and we’d love to hear more about that!
Congratulations on your 10th year anniversary since the release of your debut album with numerous live dates around the UK – could you tell us more about how your quartet got started?
I was in the last year of my Masters at the Guildhalll when I realised that I wanted to release my own original music. I had been songwriting for a while but was trying to figure out how to combine my love for jazz and improvisation with my love for writing songs. Then Richard Sadler (double bass player) gave me an E.S.T. album and, although the band didn’t feature vocals, it blended jazz, pop and electronic beautifully. They were one of my biggest inspirations when Richard and I decided to form the band. Chris (Nickolls – drummer) was the obvious choice on drums for his variety and creativity and Naadia Sheriff joined us on the 3rd album and is the perfect addition on piano.
And we love your band’s ‘sound ’and lineup (vocalist, piano, double bass, drums). What led you to this specific band setting and do you ever consider collaborating with additional instruments to your core sound?
A lot of my performances when I started out singing standards had been with myself and a piano trio and I think it was a very natural progression to have that same lineup in my original project. There is something really special about this very traditional musical formation in Jazz. The 4 instruments complement each other so well, each taking up a particular register in the music that seem to enhance eachother’s sound without ever competing for space. Yes, I think we would definitely be up for a collaboration with additional instruments if we felt it would serve the music. We wouldn’t just do it as a gimmick though or because we felt we had to try something new and different to appease promoters, which can sometimes be a worry. There’s still so much more I feel we can explore musically with just our 4 voices and I feel that is where we are at the moment. But after the 5th album, who knows?!
How did you bump into each other on the music scene? You have a great musical connection between you. How has this developed and has it informed you musically in any ways?
It’s always crazy how you bump into certain people in your life that then go on to become such important figures in your musical journey. I met Richard when we had both been booked to do a jazz/soul function and he was my lift to get to the gig! He was also on baritone sax those days but we won’t hold that against him. Richard introduced me To E.S.T and The Bad Plus, two bands that changed the way I perceived what Jazz could be. Chris and I met playing with a jazz quartet one summer. I remember it was an open air gig and the pianist was trying to mic up his drums! Chris is an incredibly versatile drummer and into electronic music like myself so it has been really interesting seeing how we can incorporate some of those sounds and elements into our music. Although the last to join the band, Naadia was probably the first ISQ band member that I met on one of the very first jazz gigs I ever played in London. It was at the Balham in Bedford, she played beautifully and was also really funny so she was a keeper basically.
Looking at your first and latest albums do you feel there’s a sense of evolving in sound – is there anything you’re doing differently as your music grows?
I would definitely say our sound has changed and grown during the years. One of the most obvious changes is that we started adding electronic instruments such as synths, bass pedals and electronic drums during the recording of the third album and I think that has really expanded our musical soundscape. I am also using a vocal effects unit with allows me to play around with my vocal sound during live performances. I I think this added texture has allowed us to improvise not only with the music we play but also with the sounds and musical atmospheres we are creating.
Lyrics clearly play an important and reflective role in your music:
’’Things can feel so awful low
With nothing left to say
But you’ll get through this pain somehow
For the night always turns into day’’.
Why do lyrics matter to you and would you say the lyrics are as important to you as the melody?
Lyrics have always been at the very core of my music making as I consider myself a storyteller at heart. Being a jazz vocalist teaches you the art of storytelling as you are performing some of the most incredible melodies and brilliant lyrics ever written. The standard repertoire was written during the era before the Beatles, when being a lyricist was considered a full time job! So the attention to detail in lyrics was of another level. I read a lot, both novels and poetry, and I think words have such an important part to play in explaining and deciphering the human condition. Words/lyrics connect with audiences in a very immediate way and I know from personal experience that some lyrics have resonated with me and touched me so deeply that I become fully engrossed in that moment. The melody is just as important though as it has to not only support the lyrical matter but emotionally enhance it too.
Your music is described as a melting point of genres – jazz, pop, acoustic and experimental with a Nordic Jazz sensibility; what is it about your sound that is important to you and would you say it’s these features that set you apart from other jazz bands?
When I released the first ISQ album in 2012 there were very few jazz singers recording and releasing their own music. It was quite tough at the beginning to get gigs as there was no obvious place for us in the Jazz scene. I think this has definitely changed in the last 10 years as more vocalists are releasing original music and I think there is a space for jazz singer-songwriters, although we’re still at the very beginning of that movement. I think I’ve also had quite an unusual upbringing which has seeped into the sound of the music. I am Southern Italian originally but grew up in Copenhagen, Denmark. I then lived briefly in Milan during my high-school years but moved to London to continue my music studies. There’s your melting pot right there! All of those experiences are reflected in the music that I love to listen to and the music that write.
Even with all of these different influences combined, you’re first and foremost a jazzband – what is it about creating music in this medium that you love the most?
Jazz to me is an approach as well as a music genre. And that approach is that the way you play needs to come from a place of improvisation. It’s not so much about the repertoire you are playing, although I love the Great American Songbook and still perform so many of those incredible songs when I play with my more traditional jazz outit. You can play any song with a jazz approach, think of Brad Mehldau and his Radiohead covers or the Bad Plus, that released a whole album of pop covers. So that’s what we do with ISQ. We write pop songs essentially and then we play them like jazz musicians.
As a jazz quartet, improvisation is of course a big part of your musicianship. What does improvisation mean to you?
I think at its core, improvisation means freedom to me. I can think of no purer (and scarier!) form of self-expression. It pulls you into the moment with such clarity, makes you really be in the present. I guess what I’m talking about is the state of flow. What makes improvisation so great is that you are usually sharing that heightened state of creativity with other musicians and an audience. It’s an incredible feeling…and always keeps you feeling on the edge as it could go any way!
With improvisation would you say that it’s an on-going learning process, and do you feel you learn from each person in the band?
Oh my goodness, yes! Improvisation is an ongoing and never ending process, constantly developing as one grows, both as a musician and person. I’m undoubtedly influenced by the other musicians in the band and by everybody I play with really. But lots of other things inspire my improvisation which have nothing to do with music. A book, a painting or a personal experience has been just as important to my journey as an improviser as the music itself.
Are there any particular musical artists or composers that have been key in influencing your musical creativity?
Too many to mention really, my music collection has a little bit of everything in it. But the artists I usually always come back to are Sarah Vaughan, Anita O’ Day, Jon Hendricks, Bill Evans, Miles Davis and the incomparable composers Duke Ellington and Jobim, two of my favourite composers of the 20th century. I am also really drawn to pop artists that are both incredible songwriters/performers but also have that Jazz approach that I mentioned such as Stevie Wonder, Prince, Bjork and Sia.
Let’s speak about your upcoming fifth album; could you give us a small glimpse at the creative process and how it will be different from the previous albums?
The 5th album is a work in progress at the moment, we’ve probably written 3/4 of it and are now exploring the songs both from a performance point of view and from a production point of view. It’s definitely going to have even more electronic elements to it than our last album as we think it really suits our music and live performances. It’s mostly songs composed by myself and Richard Sadler although Naadia has contributed an incredible piece of music that I wrote the lyrics to. Sometimes I compose the songs alone but it usually works that Richard lets me hear an idea he’s been working on and I will play around with it and see if I can come up with anything to add. It’s usually quite a quick process, I get an immediate feel if something is going to work and then little by little the song unfolds the more I work on it. Then it’s a to and fro between Richard and I, adding bits or changing sections, until we are happy with the song.
Coming back to your live dates around the UK this upcoming month celebrating your 10 year anniversary, where can people come and hear you?
We’ve just been up to the North of the UK and played Jazz @ The Lescar in Sheffield and Wakefield Jazz. Tonight (Saturday) we’re in Nottingham at Peggy’s Skylight and Wednesday the 8th June we’ll be performing at the iconic PizzaExpress Jazz Club in Soho. We’re also heading to Luton and The Bear Club on Friday 1st July so hoping to meet lots of jazz lovers over this period and make great musical memories.