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.

★★★★! Kinhan’s third album release shows her as a vocal tour de force; her songwriting abilities are here also given the limelight, with all the tracks written or co-written by her. These twisting, unpredictable tunes seem to offer up more on each repeat listen, with Kinhan’s supple voice running at full pelt through a broad musical palette. She’s a fan of Joni Mitchell and Mitchell’s influence can be heard in the effortless slides between octaves. Pinpoint vocal precision is complemented well by Randy Brecker guesting on trumpet in the title track.
- Sally Evans-Darby, Jazz Journal

Lauren a tremendously gifted jazz singer. The added advantage of Kinhan’s individual releases is that they showcase her estimable songwriting dexterity...She opens with the free-floating title track, a joyous reconfirmation that music is the food of love....Kinhan has never shone brighter.
- Christopher Loudon, Jazz Times

★★★★! Kinhan executes the most intricate of passages flawlessly, whether jumping octaves at high speed or romping through the bebop changes. “The Deep Within,” a tone poem of spiritual yearning, is a stunner.
- Allen Morrison, Downbeat Magazine

The next time someone tells you that modern music is soulless, does not "speak" to the human condition, refer them to "Circle In A Square." Lauren Kinhan and her ensemble have created music that artfully and splendidly avoids labels such as jazz, pop or funk; this is music that connects on multiple levels with grace, fire and a mature understanding of how one navigates through the shifty terrain of modern life. Dig deeply! As attractive as this music is on initial listening (Elliot Schneiner's production and engineering makes each instrument stand out without hiding the vocal), it's the strength of the songs and the vocals that makes the deepest impression. Ms. Kinhan's emotional delivery, her ability to bend a note to make a word sustain, and the poetry in much of the program is a joy to return to time and again. And, she can swing!
- Richard Kamins, Step Tempest

Lauren Kinhan has an album that arouses my memories of those early stereo days. The artwork clearly sets the atmosphere. Early sixties. Hi- Fidelity. Her luscious, velvet voice is a good place to rest your weary head. I don’t listen to a lot of vocal jazz, but I keep coming back to this one. The band behind her is brilliant.... The melody and narrative are all on stage. You need to keep coming back to this to get the whole point of jazz. Lauren Kinhan is someone to come back to.
- Ken Blanchard, JazznotesSDP, Blog

The opening tune is the title piece and is such a perfectly constructed piece with a jazz-pop sensibility, it might be the contemporary missing link of what Frank Sinatra was in the 1940s and '50s.' Kinhan does not belabor the piece with duplicates throughout Circle. Instead, she proceeds through the late- night feel of "Another Hill to Climb" and slick R&B flavored "I'm Looking for That Number." "Pocketful of Harlem" is edgy and modern, instrumentally a showcase for Kinhan's solid alto chimes. This singer's solo recordings stand in fine and forward-thinking contrast to her durable work with New York Voices.
- C Michael Bailey,

Lauren Kinhan steps out for her third solo outing with a load of first call big apple jazzbos in tow. Amazingly enough, this set sounds familiar but sounds like nothing you've heard before. Working without limitations, she pursues her muse at several levels giving us a nu kind of jazz thrush without the tortured artist effect on board. A solidly swinging set that's in the pocket throughout, this is a powerful outing that never fails to connect. Hot stuff.
- Chris Specter, Midwest Record

Kinhan shows off vocal prowess in “Circle in a Square.” It allows her to show off not only her voice, but also her writing skills. She gets lead billing on 10 of the 12 songs and shares the writing role on the other two. The songs include post-modern pieces such as the title track, a slightly brooding “Another Hill to Climb” and the clever “Bear Walk,” a jazz telling of the Three Bears story. Whatever the direction, the songs all let her show off a voice that can spring into the upper register, do some scat a bit or handle lovely lyrics.
- Bob Karlovits, The Tribune

Circle In A Square is an impressive album, which captures this singer and composer in the prime of her musical career.
- Be Bop Spoken Here (Review by Debra Milne)

Circle In A Square is an impressive album, which captures this singer and composer in the prime of her musical career.
- Be Bop Spoken Here (Review by Debra Milne)

I have a feeling that this recording might make some people's top ten lists when it comes to the end of the year.
- Randy McElligott, CHUO Radio, Ottawa

Circle In A Square is excellent and a lesson in contemporary singing, composing and lyrics.
- Don Albert, Art Spoken

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. ★★★★★!
- Brent Black, Bop-N-Jazz, Blog