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Poetry And Jazz

The Work Of Snowpoet

by Robin Kidson



Snowpoet Thought You Knew



Poet Robin Kidson considers poetry and jazz in relation to the new album 'Thought You Knew' by the band Snowpoet:

“Jazz”, said the late Michael Garrick, “is poetry, never prose”. Garrick had a passion for poetry and one facet of his long career as a jazz musician and composer was an exploration of the affinities between poetry and jazz. Together with poet and publisher, Jeremy Robson, he put on a series of “Poetry and Jazz in Concert” events in the sixties in which some of the most prominent poets of the day recited their work against a jazz backing.

For a flavour of what this sounded like, here is a 1964 recording of Adrian Mitchell reading his poem, Pals, to an accompaniment by Garrick’s Quintet featuring Joe Harriott and Shake Keane.




The idea of reading poems to a jazz backing is, of course, not confined to Michael Garrick and this sort of recital has continued to be an important way in which the links between jazz and poetry are expressed. But they are not the only way .....

There are, for example, poems inspired by jazz – For Sidney Bechet by Philip Larkin is worth checking out (click here):

That note you hold, narrowing and rising, shakes
Like New Orleans reflected on the water,
And in all ears appropriate falsehood wakes,

Building for some a legendary Quarter
Of balconies, flower-baskets and quadrilles,
Everyone making love and going shares--

Oh, play that thing! Mute glorious Storyvilles
Others may license, grouping around their chairs
Sporting-house girls like circus tigers ......


There is also jazz inspired by poetry – Stan Tracey’s Under Milkwood Suite, Duke Ellington’s settings of Shakespearean sonnets….. There are the Beat Poets who sought to reproduce in much of their poetry the rhythms, phrasing and spontaneity of jazz.

A contemporary take on the interaction between jazz and poetry (however defined) is provided by the work of Snowpoet. Snowpoet is a London based ensemble jointly led by Lauren Kinsella and Chris Hyson. Kinsella, originally from Dublin, writes and sings the lyrics (or poems); Hyson plays bass, piano and synths. The music is a collaboration between all members of the band which, in addition to Kinsella and Hyson, is made up of Nicholas Costley-White (acoustic guitar), Matthew Robinson (piano), Dave Hamblett (drums) and Josh Arcoleo (saxophone). They brought out their eponymous first album in 2016 to general acclaim; their second album, Thought You Knew, has just been released.





For me, Snowpoet’s most interesting and original work takes us back to Michael Garrick’s spoken word/music experimentations. It’s Already Better Than OK (on Thought You Knew) is a stream of consciousness prose-poem which is spoken by Kinsella to an accompaniment of mainly guitar and drums. Kinsella’s performance is marvellously expressive capturing exactly the halting, disjointed and repetitive course of confused, instant thought. Occasionally, and most effectively, single words and short phrases are sung.

There is a similar piece on their first album called Mermaid:




There is, of course, the 'jazz song' which essentially is a poem set to music. Purists might bridle at the notion that a popular song is poetry but even purists would find it hard to argue that the clever sophistication of, say, a Cole Porter or Ira Gershwin lyric wasn’t a form of poetry. And one of the greatest jazz vocal performances ever – Billie Holiday’s Strange Fruit – started life as a formal (and powerful) poem 'Bitter Fruit' by AbeLauren Kinsella and Chris Hyson Meerepol (click here).

“I get tired of labels!”, says Kinsella, which is a good job because the work of Snowpoet is difficult to categorise. The music is an amalgam of jazz, electronica, folk, a bit of contemporary classical and more than a hint of high end pop. The words are recognisably poems – Kinsella includes amongst her influences Sylvia Plath, W.B. Yeats, Philip Larkin and e e cummings – but there is also a touch of the contemporary singer-songwriter there.


Lauren Kinsella and Chris Hyson


Enough of labels, though – the whole Snowpoet package is innovative yet accessible, often thrilling, with a brilliant match between the music and the words. Take Water Baby, for example, a track on Thought You Knew. Kinsella’s lyric is a short but effective poem that creates a wonderfully evocative mood, a mood captured by the music which blends electronics and strings to create sounds of water, birdsong, half-heard voices and outside spaces. (Incidentally, the strings are provided by Alice Zawadski's violin and Francesca Ter-Berg on cello). Kinsella sings her lyric with feeling – she has been compared with Björk and her voice sometimes has a Björk-like catch and breathiness. There is also an attractive Irish inflexion there.


Water Baby

Sound, air, moon, stars.
Light changing from afar.
Am I to you, what seems to be a melancholic mystery.
What was is not, if fact, I find
That only time will heal my mind.

The sound that comes in through the trees: that's distance heard between the leaves.
My focus shifts and what remains are tall firm oaks in passing lanes.


Click here to listen to Water Baby




The promotional video shows how Kinsella’s lyrics can also be highly original – The Therapist, for example (again, on Thought You Knew) plays the well-worn theme of romantic love through a conversation with a therapist:




Thought You Knew was released on 9th February 2018 on the Edition Records label - click here for details and to listen to the album.

Snowpoet are touring Ireland over the next few weeks but also have some UK dates including:

Sunday, 18th March: Bristol International Jazz and Blues Festival
Thursday, 19th April: Hare and Hounds, Birmingham
Thursday, 10th May: Kings Place, London
Friday, 11th May: Turner Sims, Southampton
Saturday, 12th May: Wales Millenium Centre, Cardiff


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Other pages you might find of interest :

Philip Larkin - Cat Out Of Hull
Albert Ayler At The LSE
Video Juke Box
Jazz As Art

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