Thought-Fox – My Guess

MyGuessThought-Fox is an Irish quintet led by the singer Lauren Kinsella, alongside Colm O’Hara (trombone), Tom Gibbs (piano), Mick Coady (double bass), and Simon Roth (drums). They cleave close to jazz dynamics, but transcend genre. I don’t usually like ‘jazz’ vocal albums, but Kinsella is a vocal stylist of rare, unforced originality.

The group’s debut album, My Guess (Diatribe) starts with O’Hara’s trombone shadowing Kinsella’s vocalisation of wordless sound-shapes, while bass and piano play melancholic counterpoint ostinatos. Meanwhile Roth plays in soft brush strokes and occasional cymbal-scrapes, which Gibbs matches with soundings of the piano’s harp. Gibbs then signals a change, introducing a repeating melodic figure on the keyboard. Coady strikes out pizzicato on bass while Kinsella improvises volubly with the expressive inarticulacy of scat. Just when the tempo seems fit to swing the group revert to the bass/piano ostinatos, and suddenly the piano is soloing elegantly. As the group regroup, they lock onto the kernel of a melody, but break off again to return to the exposition.

“Nightlight” is a superb opening song, highlighting both Kinsella’s rare qualities as a singer and composer, and the sympathetic erudition of the band, her translators into sound.

Drummer Simon Roth wrote “Arrival / Departure”, which is the only composition here not by Kinsella. Gibbs interprets the melody with mellifluous classicism, and Kinsella sings its lyric with a lilting urban R&B inflection, setting the scene for O’Hara’s deft, brassy jazzification. The buttery trombone is an excellent foil for Kinsella’s characteristically gracile voice.

She’s more imperious on “Prime of Life”, a song closer to jazz cabaret traditions in its vocal line, though there’s a bold-contoured piano feature at its heart.

The quintet, formed in 2008, takes its name from a poem by Ted Hughes (Kinsella recorded a sequence of compositions with the same name for last year’s album of duets with drummer Alex Huber, All This Talk About (WideEarRecords)). Here, she takes another poet’s work—T.S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land”—as the source of ideas toward “Worm of Thought”, and her exegesis sets the group to their most daring interplay.

Kinsella moves quickly from bass-duet scat to slippery expressionism with the group sans piano; then drums and piano kick uptempo and the quintet drives through a further dazzling sequence of combinations leading, ultimately, to a hushed setting for Kinsella’s impressionistic utterances. It’s this album’s most boldly adventurous and idiosyncratic composition.

Roth is at his most dextrous, incisive and propulsive on “Malin’s Chai”, which is jaunty and seductive by turns. Kinsella handles the melody with sultry ennui, and the drummer is needed more than once to snap his bandmates out of the reveries she apparently induces.

It’s Coady who seduces on the intro to “Celia”, a lulling downtempo number with the group in uncharacteristic unison until the midpoint all-change, after which piano and voice take joint lead in languid exploration of subtly oriental tonalities (as ever, however, the trombone keeps the tone grounded).

“My Guess” returns to jazz terra firma with fluent improvisational lyricism: “I wanna feel that piece of mind again / In my head / … heart / …soul.” The quintet sound loose but locked-in; fully simpatico with Kinsella and her music, circling the groove before an almost insouciant touchdown.

With precious few exceptions—Betty Carter, and just-post-M-Base Cassandra Wilson—I generally don’t like jazz vocal albums. I love this one though, for its originality, for its balance of poise and power, and for its expressive daring.

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