circle in a square

track listing

The first thing you notice is her voice, and then her savvy choices. Lauren Kinhan possesses a rare and beautiful instrument, tough and tender, clear and fine-grained in every register, whether she’s dipping down into husky chest tones or ascending into silvery head tones. With her glorious sound, she could sing anything and make it a memorable listening experience, but Kinhan is defining herself as an artist by creating her own material, making a compelling case that 21st century jazz singers can thrive outside the context of the American Songbook. Rooted in jazz’s improvisational imperative, she knows that you best celebrate the music by remaking it in your own image. “Think of me as a horn player who sings a lyric or a dancer filling a phrase, a reedy voice that’s lived in, adventurous and unapologetic,” Kinhan says. “It all circles around living in the moment, telling a story and letting conventions be undressed and re-outfitted.”

Circle in a Square is Kinhan’s third release under her own name, but she’s already established a vivid identity as a songwriter with a gift for capturing the emotional currents of everyday life. She made a powerful first impression with 2000’s Hardly Blinking, an eclectic program of original songs exploring an array of topics and instrumental textures. A decade later, she followed up with the highly personal Avalon, an album deeply informed by her experience of motherhood, and the pleasures and challenges of family life. In many ways Circle In a Square picks up where Avalon left off, evoking the numinous possibilities in a flirty pair of shoes, a familiar melody, or an insinuating groove.

Part of what makes Circle in a Square so revelatory is that it provides a rare 360-degree glimpse into Kinhan’s musical world. She wrote all the lyrics and almost all the music for every piece, and shaped each arrangement working with her core rhythm section of pianist/keyboardist Andy Ezrin and drummer Ben Wittman (the well-traveled Will Lee and David Finck divide bass duties). The steady personnel provides a cohesive feel throughout the album, while an all-star gallery of special guests contributes instrumental commentary and eloquent solos, such as Brazilian guitar great Romero Lubambo’s perfectly sculpted acoustic passage on the intricate, lyric-less “Chasing the Sun” and trumpet maestro Randy Brecker’s melodically charged passage on the title track.

Let’s talk about that title track, which opens the album. “It’s a bird/It’s a plane” Kinhan sings, but instead of a Superman sighting she’s hailing music itself. Sounding like a cross between Donald Fagen and Joni Mitchell, the song captures the evocative power of a record spinning on a turntable with a finely etched lyric married to a seductive melody that embodies the very transportive power Kinhan describes. It’s a bravura performance, and everything that follows lives up to its implicit promise. She often makes brilliant use of contrasting musical elements, like the way the jagged piano figure sets off the long sinuous melody of “My Painted Lady Butterfly” (a song tied together by Joel Frahm’s serpentine soprano sax solo). She summons the intensity of a gospel singer on the deceptively languorous “Another Hill to Climb,” which initially sounds like an uplifting anthem but instead unfolds as a cautionary tale. Whether rapturously becalmed (“The Deep Within”), on the good-time prowl (“Pocketful of Harlem”), or tormented by the search for unknowable answers (“To Live or Die”), Kinhan turns each piece into a self-contained emotional narrative driven by her unerring musical taste.

There’s no denying the scope and power of Kinhan’s individual vision. With Circle in a Square she fully reveals herself as an inspired singer and songwriter whose voice gains depth with every listen.

Andrew Gilbert is a music writer in Berkeley, Calif. who writes for the San Francisco Chronicle, San Jose Mercury News, JazzTimes and other publications.

Brent Black,
Lauren Kinhan may be best known as one of the key components of the critically acclaimed New York Voices despite having a musical pedigree that includes work with Steely Dan, Sting, and Van Morrison. The recent Christmas release Let It Snow from The New York Voices put Kinhan back on my musical radar and her third solo release Circle In A Square is a stunning semi-autobiographical look at love, life and all the baggage one encounters along the way.

I've been burned by vocalists before. Having reviewed more singers in three years than most hear in a lifetime the vast majority are the equivalent of improvisational chewing gum, great flavor at the beginning but midway through the release they become utterly forgettable and quite often die a self inflicted death of pretentious overkill. Lauren Kinhan is the notable exception as her lyrical and harmonic gifts as a vocalist make an effortless transition to pen and paper as her talents as a lyricist are equal to any of her contemporaries. Circle In A Square features an all star lineup including Randy Brecker, Donny McCaslin and the Brazilian guitar virtuoso Romero Lubambo. The compositions are finely crafted pieces of Kinhan's experiences as she embraces that all important aspect of connectivity elevating this release past the tightly clustered pack of female vocalists content to bang out a set of shop worn standards in an effort to earn a quick if not relatively easily payday.

A hidden gem on this release includes "Another Hill to Climb" which includes a gorgeous string arrangement by the great Rob Mounsey and features a quartet led by another critically acclaimed artist in Sara Caswell. Playing musical prospector with Circle In A Square is done so with relative ease as sparkling gold nuggets turn up with consistency throughout this finely crafted effort. Grammy-nominated Randy Brecker turns in yet another amazing performance in his legendary career while Brazilian six string master Romero Lubambo shines on "Chasing The Sun."

There are layers of texture, organic bits of lyrical wonder that magically fuse together to make a contemporary mosaic of harmonic wonder that sets a new standard for improvisational vocalists everywhere. The sorority of female vocalists is a tightly clustered pack with Lauren Kinhan making a bold new statement that bodes well for the future.

Nothing to grind on here, it simply does not get much better than this.