Sometimes first impressions can be deceiving. "Leap of Faith," the opening track on Fay Victor's Cartwheels Through the Cosmos, bursts out of the speakers, suggestion a hard-edged album filled with relentless energy when that's only part of the equation. The beauty of Victor, who's the absolute antithesis of polite vocal jazz, is her blending of soulful delivery with avant-garde tactics. Cartwheels Through the Cosmos is that rarity amongst contemporary vocal jazz releases: an album that doesn't rely on a tired repertoire and looks, instead, for innovation in every corner.
Victor has plenty of past experience mining the standards repertoire, with a Betty Carter-like approach to stretching them unpredictably. She relocated to Holland in the mid-'90s, where her exposure to its outré scene began a gradual journey, finally reaching full fruition here. Her previous two releases found the intrepid singer, in addition to original material written in collaboration with Jochem van Dijk, shedding new light on material by diverse sources including Charles Mingus, Claude Debussy, Randy Newman and The Doors Cartwheels continues her collaboration with van Dijk, but this time there's nary a cover to be found.
As Victor is a confluence of singers that includes Jeanne Lee and Cassandra Wilson, so too is her current ensemble an equally eclectic collection of references. Bassist Ken Filiano is no stranger to diversity, having worked with everyone from West Coast free improviser Vinny Golia to East Coast avant-gardist Dom Minasi. Drummer Michael "TA" Thompson is a thunderous presence who moves comfortably between forward motion and greater turbulence. Guitarist Anders Nilsson is a real find, using his generally tart electric tone to deliver an encyclopedic mélange of rock-heavy power chords, advanced harmonies, bluesy bends and bebop lines that's its own mix of "Blood" Ulmer, Sonny Sharrock, early-'70s Larry Coryell and a very skewed Wes Montgomery.
The material ranges from the raucous "Leap of Faith" to the harmonically static, psychedelically free maelstrom of "Exchange Rate" and faux-Latin "It's Coming." "Spin" begins with a freewheeling drum solo before turning more vigorously propulsive, while Filiano's scratchy arco introduces a free exchange on "Pillow on My Ear" the only finds true focus when Victor sings.
Victor may be an evocative vocalist, but she avoids the excess scatting trap of so many of her peers, making it all the more effective when she chooses to use the technique. More impressive is her ability to execute melodies that seem nearly unnavigable vocally.
The album ends on an understated note with the gentle "Stray Dogs" and the curiously blended swing and funk of "Earth," where Victor's at her most centrist. But even when she's not exploring the outer reaches of free improvisation she's more vivacious and full of life than most jazz vocalists. Her fearless exploration of a myriad of musical nexus points makes Cartwheels Through the Cosmos an album for those who normally stay away from vocal jazz.
Personnel: Fay Victor: voice; Anders Nilsson: electric guitar; Ken Filiano: bass, effects; Michael "TA" Thompson: drums.