Thought Fox – My Guess
(Diatribe Recordings. CD Review by Matthew Wright)
The launch of My Guess, the début album of Lauren Kinsella’s band Thought-Fox, at The Vortex on Wednesday 8th May, is an event packed with nominal suggestiveness. The character of this music, with its skilful but unusual ensemble, and dazzling improvised singing, is both curious – ‘guess’ – and fascinating, like the thought-fox.
Irish-born, though now working in London, Kinsella’s Thought-Fox – with Colm O’Hara on trombone, Tom Gibbs piano, Mick Coady double bass and Simon Roth drums – has already attracted much interest in the land of her birth, winning the Irish Music Network Young Musicwide Award in 2010. Thought-Fox is supported for their 2012/13 tour by the Improvised Music Company’s 12 Points Plus initiative, an Irish scheme to support new jazz.
This is an exciting release, with music it’s extremely difficult to capture in words. Structurally, it’s a conventional jazz quartet – excepting the use of trombone in this combination of instruments – with vocalist, but the sound-world Thought-Fox plunges us into is anything but.
Lauren Kinsella sings a combination of recognisable, scripted words and what I shall call scat, which seems to be improvised. It doesn’t sound like scat as practised, say, by Ella Fitzgerald, but that somehow seems the only sensible description. Her technique borrows something from nonsense poetry – think of Lewis Carroll’s ‘Jabberwocky’ – in that some of the sounds are suggestive of words, but aren’t. She’s accompanied lyrically and sensitively in these quirkily melodic arrangements by the deft and intelligent support of her band.
Kinsella’s voice has a strikingly pure tone, and ranges from spine-tickling highs to an earthy speaking voice. They are, essentially, romantic songs, but the other-worldly qualities of Kinsella’s voice suggest both a folk influence, and, occasionally, a kind of religious mysticism. In its freshness and determination not to be categorised, this music is very contemporary, but there’s also a kind of contemplative spirituality to some of the tracks that also sounds timeless. Thought-Fox occupies an excitingly liminal position in so many ways; between sense and nonsense, words and babble, scripted music and improvisation, romance and spirituality.
The tracks – all written by Kinsella except for ‘Arrival/Departure’, by Roth – contain both recognisable lyrics and nonsense words. In many cases, the scat passages come after the song’s dramatic situation has been established, and take the form of moments of reflection, which fit the narrative of each song plausibly. Despite the compelling weirdness of the sound, then, the scat makes perfect sense in its context.
For example, in the title track, ‘My Guess’, seemingly about a failing relationship, the lyrics begin: ‘My guess is that I’m afraid to leave.’ After the scene is set further, there’s a passage of scat, which shows the singer/speaker thinking about her decision. Given the circumstance of the dilemma, the scat – intriguingly – makes perfect sense as a kind of dramatised ‘um and ah’.
One of many distinctive features of Kinsella’s scat is that the range of sounds she makes is so intriguing. When we hear ‘shoo-doo-shoo-bee-ooo-bee’, say, we know straight away it’s nonsense, but Kinsella’s nonsense words are intriguing enough to make us think first. In some ways – strictly in the positive, creative sense – it’s like hearing a baby trying to make its first words. They’re not actually words, but they nearly are, and the process of trying to work out what they suggest is absorbing.
As the name ‘Thought-Fox’ implies, the band’s inspiration is quite cerebral. ‘Worm of Thought’, for example, comes from TS Eliot’s ‘Waste Land’. In live performance, there’s an engaging intensity to Kinsella’s explanations of her varied literary sources.
Though Kinsella’s singing is the main event here, these are intricate and sophisticated ensemble performances, and everyone excels. Coady and Roth are the least prominent, but both have a series of delicate solos, executed sensitively. Gibbs, on piano, expertly balances snatches of melodic accompaniment with sophisticated harmonic support during the passages of improvisation.
Perhaps most extraordinary is the relationship with O’Hara’s trombone, which is almost symbiotic in its sense of complete mutual dependency and interaction. The juxtaposition of honking brass with such a balletic voice seems at first so incongruous, yet O’Hara’s playing, taking advantage of the instrument’s gliding athleticism, is so lithe and sensitive that it quickly sounds like an obvious pairing.
This is both a seductively charming series of songs, and, in many ways, a serious and original piece of work. The ability to create both at once is a precious skill. Kinsella has already been compared to idiosyncratic and original singers like Annette Peacock and Björk. It’s too early to tell how her career will develop – though it will be interesting to watch – but there is no doubt Kinsella’s Thought-Fox is a rare and original talent. Psychologist Jeff Pressing has argued (here) that ‘for every first-rate scat-singer in the world, there must be 500 talented jazz saxophonists’. The charm, skill and intelligence on display here make it a very unusual performance indeed.