Amid the swirling sounds and scenes intersected by Los Angeles’ sprawling freeways, John Carroll Kirby is someplace on the centre of all of it, shirt open, hair slicked again. He circles the town’s buzzing jazz motion together with his soul-dappled instrumentals and is a keysman, composer and producer who’s been enlisted by among the most fun names in up to date pop: Frank Ocean, Mark Ronson, Harry Kinds, Blood Orange, and Solange Knowles, whose incendiary previous two albums, A Seat on the Desk and Once I Get Dwelling, have been formed partly by Kirby.
He laughs as he describes his personal work as “French cat burglar music”: it blends jazz with new age, funk and exotica, flutes usually taking centre stage. Tracks are impressed by work of ayahuasca visions or tales about dolphins that flip into misplaced boys. Kirby is of a non secular persuasion, however he has a way of humour about it, too.
“I don’t discover it fascinating to be too critical,” he says. “Numerous British music feels so doom and gloom generally. The feelings are so heavy, it’s so darkish. I’m like, man, is it actually that unhealthy?” Enjoyable is vital, he feels, particularly when your instrument is the piano – “nearly a survival methodology, as a result of if I have been to launch overly earnest piano music, it could possibly be rubbish”. For the video for latest single Rainmaker, he chosen the stylist on the premise that once they met on a trend journal shoot “she tried to place me in assless chaps”.
Perhaps LA is the rationale for his breezy outlook. Kirby beams in from his porch within the leafy enclave of Mount Washington, birds tweeting overhead, a piano perched within the nook the place he’s been filming performances on Instagram. The pandemic apart, final 12 months was nice for his solo profession: he launched My Garden, his first solo album for Stones Throw, to acclaim; launched a meditative lockdown launch referred to as Conflict; produced a beautiful comeback record for Eddie Chacon, of Charles & Eddie’s Would I Deceive You? fame; and a movie he scored, Cryptozoo, gained an award at Sundance.
If something binds these releases collectively, it’s their gauzy ease. “It needs to be a fantastic praise to say it’s simple to take heed to,” he says. “Such a pitfall of being a musician, particularly with jazz coaching, is you wish to be tough. I’m attempting to do one thing that’s a bit extra accessible.”
New album Septet, launched final week, is Kirby’s first time directing his personal ensemble since his youth in music, when he studied orchestration and composing for giant bands. He grew up in Pasadena, California, and took piano classes whereas at college however began taking music significantly when the esteemed composer John Clayton turned his mentor and Kirby adopted him to the College of Southern California. “Lots of people begin once they’re 5,” he says, “so in some methods I lacked approach as a result of my arms didn’t develop to play piano. So I underdeveloped in that sense. However then again, it actually was one thing that was my very own ardour.”
Generally he would go all the way down to the World Stage arts house in Leimert Park and attend jam periods with the likes of Kamasi Washington however “if I’m actually being sincere,” he admits, “these guys have been a bit higher than me, so it was generally exhausting to hold”. Regardless of Kirby’s music usually being described as jazz, he doesn’t take into account himself part of the blossoming scene in LA. “Jazz is in my coronary heart however there’s issues about jazz scenes that flip me off just a little,” he says. “They are often fairly insular. Generally the main focus may be for taking part in for different musicians versus a broader viewers. And perhaps on prime of that, I don’t have the need to play issues as complicated – perhaps for lack of capacity, or simply lack of curiosity.”
Throughout faculty he met one other bedrock of his musical training, Cash Mark, keysman within the Beastie Boys, whose strategy to efficiency he admired. “He was the primary particular person I heard play [Fender] Rhodes, synth and Hammond organ in a cool means that wasn’t essentially jazz, or in any other case was taking humorous devices and reviving them,” he says. “In my view he’s who we are able to credit score with synths coming again. Shortly after I left faculty, I toured in his band. The whole lot he does is so unsanctimonious. He’ll play a trumpet with a helium balloon and stuff like that. He’s like a mad scientist on stage, operating round. That was an enormous studying lesson.”
It’s these individuals Kirby credit as being position fashions when, rising up, his personal father was largely absent. His dad, an oral surgeon, was an “honorary Hells Angel” who turned to satanism after being concerned in a biking accident when Kirby was 10. “When he was within the hospital recovering, he made a pact with the satan for his soul to alleviate him of among the ache,” says Kirby. “After that, he obtained a tattoo of Mephistopheles, the satan’s messenger, on his arm and he was a unique particular person.”
“I simply knew that my dad was not like different individuals’s dads,” he continues. “He wasn’t taking part in catch or doing healthful actions, he was in his room getting bizarre and doing medication. It influenced me in two methods: one, I missed out on that sort of position mannequin however then again, it impressed me as a result of he all the time did his personal factor.”
Not lengthy after his father died some years in the past, Kirby launched into his personal non secular journey. He moved to New York and began following the guru Sri Dharma Mittra, after whom he wrote the lead monitor from My Backyard, Blueberry Beads. “I don’t even know if I ought to have introduced that up – I don’t wish to be out right here wanting like a jackass,” he says. “It’s really easy to get swept up in a guru’s instructing the place issues get just a little humorous. However my guru instructed me to take what you need [from his teachings] and use it the very best you may. I attempt to apply that in my music: I need individuals to take it flippantly or not. If individuals don’t recognise the non secular factor in any respect, by all means, get pleasure from it the way you prefer it.”
New York can be the place Kirby’s fortunes turned as a struggling artist. He’d been renting out his house there to remain afloat and tenting out at his mom’s home again in California – then he obtained the decision from Solange. They’d met by means of mutual mates and Kirby was launched into an exciting songwriting course of for her 2016 album A Seat on the Desk. “She would create eventualities that took you out of your factor, like incorporating chance – the place you do issues like roll a cube to determine the following word – or providing you with an project,” says Kirby of the studio periods. “She’d say issues like, ‘after seven beats, one thing will occur or change and I’m not going to inform you what it’s’. It’s important to make up what the chord modifications to. It’s an effective way to work.”
He likens going into the studio with somebody new to getting into the ring. “I’m an enormous boxing fan, and considered one of my favorite commentators says, ‘These two guys are gonna come collectively and field!’ That’s cool, however we have to know why. What’s at stake? Do they hate one another? In music, it’s the identical factor. You could know what you’re listening to and what the story is. So I all the time gravitate in the direction of that.”
Magic can occur when “individuals are out of their factor,” he continues. “It makes me take into consideration considered one of my favorite jazz information, which is Cash Jungle by Duke Ellington, Max Roach and Charles Mingus. These have been three individuals who have been actually doing fairly various things and so they’re feeling one another out. The legend of that recording session is that they have been combating with one another within the studio. The entire report is damaged; individuals are taking part in aggressively however not supporting one another. There’s every kind of unsuitable notes, out of tune notes … I like it when issues are unsettled like that. The place individuals are actually uncomfortable, it may be fascinating.”
It’s one thing he skilled just a little when taking part in with Rickie Lee Jones circa 2008, the rock musician who has recently released a memoir about her life in music. “Full respect and like to her however she was one of the troublesome individuals I’ve ever labored with,” he says. “She would do stuff like, ‘I wish to do the music from West Facet Story for my subsequent gig.’ We’d rehearse for eight hours and he or she’d go, ‘Oh, you’re not doing it proper.’ She’d go to the piano and hit it with the again of her knuckles and goes, ‘I’m not likely a piano participant, but it surely must be like this.’ Then the gig comes, and he or she doesn’t play one word of West Facet Story. She performs songs I’ve by no means heard in my life and I’m on stage attempting to be taught these songs on the fly. I’m grateful in a means as a result of it compelled me to only roll with conditions.”
Septet got here out of a dwell ensemble efficiency on the much-loved and now-closed Blue Whale venue in 2019. It’s impressed by 70s jazz-fusion bands like that of Miles Davis, in addition to, amongst different issues, Herbie Hancock’s jazz-funk odyssey Head Hunters and the vibraphonist/marimba participant Cal Tjader’s 1976 album Amazonas: there’s a powerful Brazilian flavour, plenty of elegant, tactile texture, and a tropical humidity though all of it feels weightless. Kirby’s music, although instrumental, conjures vivid imagery: he says Septet evokes the character of LA, issues like “the sound of the sprinkler on a scorching day” (Rainmaker), “a childhood fantasy of strolling by means of LA with a mountain lion as my pet” (P64 By My Facet) or “an attractive yellow swallowtail butterfly flying by my porch” (Swallow Tail). “I discover lyrics to be distracting,” he says. “It’s enjoyable with instrumental music as a result of it provides you a bit more room to discover these unfastened ideas; lyrics can get in the best way. That’s to not say that I don’t write from an emotional place, I’m not lifeless inside. However I’m not saying one thing is in regards to the assassination of JFK or one thing like that when it’s not.”
He sees himself as extra of a Ry Cooder character, the guitarist who co-directed the Cuban ensemble Buena Vista Social Membership. “He’s a sort of genreless musician,” says Kirby. “He’s simply centred round guitar and the place that matches into totally different eventualities. I’m attempting to do one thing comparable, however with the keyboard.”