EP Review: Isobella Burnham, ‘Dancin’ Garuda’

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Tynerisms’ does not so much open Dancin’ Garuda as much as herald it. Pianist Lorenz Okello-Osengor drops two heavy, cinematic notes, drummer Benjamin Appiah keeps you in suspense on hi-hat, and Sheila Maurice-Grey (trumpet) and Nathaniel Cross (trombone) announce the sliding, silvery procession of Thomas Seminar Ford’s guitar just as Lorenz passes the bassline to Isobella Burnham: bassist, yes, but also vocalist, composer, producer, and arranger of all seven gorgeously constructed tracks of debut EP Dancin’ Garuda.

“I wanted to play this music with the most incredible people I could find.” Burnham is gracious when speaking about her band, their sound borne of several collective decades of friendship and collaboration between Sheila (KOKOROKO, Nérija), Nathaniel (Moses Boyd, Kano), Lorenz and Benji (both Steamdown), a testament that despite the buzzy media attention paid to “London Jazz” (including on this site), today’s ‘scene’ emerged not spontaneously but from a deep multigenerational network and breadth of Afrodiasporic heritage. Guitarist Thomas Seminar Ford (Chris Dave, Reuben James) joined the mix for recording and immediately understood the vibe and Izzy’s overall vision.

With this venerable assemblage Izzy brought to life bright rhythms of her own St Lucian and Barbadian heritage. The EP has pensive, understated moments, but mostly has an upbeat energy spanning revelatory. “When you mention ‘Caribbean,’ people often think of soca and reggae. It was important to find a way to incorporate other native rhythms that don’t get the push they deserve to these islands within my music because they are inherently a part of me as well, as I am a part of these islands.”

One such style is spouge, which was crafted in the 1950s/60s but never quite took off commercially beyond the islands. “I made it a point to use that heavily as an influence in creating ‘Hard Ears’,” named for the adage (which Izzy conveyed in Bajan cadence and accent) “Hard ears you won’t hear, own way you gonna feel.” Tom’s solo rumbles out of the punchy chorus and Benji’s drum solo halfway through ends with a crash and more suspense. Izzy picks up scatting note-for-note with Lorenz, whose keys throughout the EP feel like a fresh breeze. “Basically it means if you don’t listen to your elders you’re gonna bear the consequences of your actions. It felt like a fitting title to represent spouge.” 

Last year, opening for Nérija at Village Underground, solitary under a spotlight, Izzy kept an audience’s rapt attention. I recognised the call-and-response chorus she had us sing as ‘In Power.’ On the EP, she still opens with a thrumming, fuzzy bass solo, but her band fully animates and textures the tune. “That track is a whole journey within itself,” she said, its power gained not from brashness, but with the walking steadiness of Shango and Zouk, two rhythms from Trinidad and St Lucia, respectively that Isobella felt blended well. 

Izzy said ‘Dancin’ Garuda,’ the title track, “kind of fell out of me.” While in the Bristol studio of her friend and Connie Constance bandmate Luke Typesun, he overheard her playing and named the tune on the spot. Upon learning about the mythical bird of Buddhist and Hindu origin, Izzy decided “This sounds really cool and dope, I’ll use it.” It’s a fitting title given the interplay between the muted’s horns darting melody and Izzy’s long, soaring scat solos which play off Lorenz’s crisp keys.

Most of the EP’s songs were sketched over the summer of 2019, in preparation to play in Pat Pascal’s Jazz New Blood segment at the London Jazz Fest. On tour that year with Connie Constance, she devised her songs over voicenote and picked out melodies on keys when she had a chance. Once touring was over, Izzy set to fleshing out her songs on Logic. “I felt like a mastermind behind a computer. I knew how I wanted the project to be heard and who I wanted to solo. It was very thought-out and methodical.” Her arrangements render each song a gorgeous arc that sets you down right no matter the tumult depicted within. The final track, ‘Dusk Til Dawn,’ conjures a woozy intrigue, Sheila’s solo bending dark, winding notes, the EP ends in a simmer-not necessarily a resolution, but certainly bringing the listener into some light.

Having seen Izzy play in a few settings, like a jam session, gig in low-ceilinged pub, and, days before the first lockdown, in a transcendent Church of Sound performance with Cassie Kinoshi’s group Brown Penny opening for Tony Allen’s final concert, her artistry is a testament to the power of music to spread love and joy. In the five days leading to the EP’s release, she teased it with a series of countdown videos on her Instagram. They were hilarious and perfectly timed. In the first, Isobella pranced through a park and rolled down a hill over lilting entreaties to listen. Two days beforehand, she played both a Barbadian news anchor announcing the breaking news of its imminent release and the viewer watching TV at home taking note. 
I look forward to seeing Izzy perform live again.The next best thing, though, is watching her charismatic bandleading in her May 21st Jazz Refreshed session. The music charity ended a 16-year run of weekly nights at Mau Mau Bar in Notting Hill when the venue closed at the end of 2019, but throughout the pandemic has continued to support and nurture the development of young talent with weekly livestreamed gigs.

“It’s always important to me to have fun while I play. Otherwise there’s not much point. Music is so emotive and you choose what the listener feels by guiding them through your lens and how you see the world. This EP is overall joyful music. It’s a part of who I am and I wanted to let the world in and see different parts and sides of me. I love playing with all the people in the band.”

All music written, arranged, and produced by Isobella Burnham
Recorded at Pink Bird Recording Co.
Produced by Grantleigh Burnham
Mixed by Rick David
Mastered by Katie Tavini
Artwork by Gary Jude