Saturday, July 31

Jazz-funk guru John Carroll Kirby: ‘When musicians feel uncomfortable, it can be interesting’ | Music

TOAmid the swirling sounds and scenes crisscrossed by sprawling Los Angeles freeways, John Carroll Kirby is somewhere in the center of it all, shirt open and hair slicked back. He surrounds the city’s vibrant jazz movement with his soul-splattered instrumentals and is a key man, songwriter, and producer who has been recruited by some of the most exciting names in contemporary pop: Frank Ocean, Mark Ronson, Harry Styles, Blood Orange. and Solange Knowles. , whose incendiary past two albums, A Seat at the Table and When I Get Home, were molded in part by Kirby.

He laughs when he describes his own work as “French music for cat thieves”: he mixes jazz with the new age, funk and the exotic, with flutes often taking center stage. The clues are inspired by paintings of visions of ayahuasca or stories about dolphins becoming lost children. Kirby has a spiritual persuasion, but he also has a sense of humor.

“I don’t find it interesting to be too serious,” he says. “A lot of British music sometimes feels so pessimistic and pessimistic. Emotions are so heavy, it’s so dark I’m like, man, is it really that bad? “Fun is important, he feels, especially when his instrument is the piano,” almost a survival method, because if he released too serious piano music, it could be rubbish. “For the video for the recent single Rainmaker, he selected the stylist over the basis that when they met at a fashion magazine shoot “she tried to put me on some assholes.”

Perhaps LA is the reason for his joyous outlook. Kirby radiates from his porch into the leafy Mount Washington enclave, birds tweeting overhead, a piano perched on the corner where he has been filming performances on Instagram. Pandemic aside, last year was great for his solo career – he released My garden, his acclaimed first solo album for Stones Throw; released a meditative blocking release called Conflict; produced a magnificent comeback record for Eddie Chacon of Charles & Eddie’s Would I Lie to You? fame; and a film he composed, Cryptozoo, won an award at Sundance.

If something unites these launches, it is their vaporous ease. “It should be a huge compliment to say that it’s easy to listen to,” he says. “One trap of being a musician, especially with a jazz background, is wanting to be a cheater. I’m trying to do something that’s a little more accessible. “

John Carroll Kirby.
John Carroll Kirby. Photography: Angela Suarez

New album Septet, released last week, is the first time Kirby has conducted his own ensemble since his formative years in music, when he studied orchestration and composition for big bands. He grew up in Pasadena, California, and took piano lessons while in school, but began to get serious about music when the Dear composer John Clayton he became his mentor and Kirby followed him to the University of Southern California. “A lot of people start when they are five years old,” he says, “so somehow I lacked technique because my hands weren’t developed to play the piano. So I am underdeveloped in that sense. But on the other hand, it really was something that was my own passion. “

Sometimes he would go to the world’s performing arts space in Leimert Park and attend jam sessions with people like Kamasi Washington, but “if I’m really honest,” he admits, “those guys were a little better than me, so sometimes it was hard to hang. “Although Kirby’s music is often described as jazz, it is not considered part of the burgeoning Los Angeles scene.” Jazz is in my heart, but there are things about jazz scenes that they get a bit discouraged, “he says.” They can be quite insular. Sometimes the focus may be to play for other musicians as opposed to a wider audience. And maybe on top of that, I don’t have the desire to play such complex stuff, maybe due to lack of ability or simply due to lack of interest. “

During college he met another pillar of his musical education, Money Mark, the point man of the Beastie Boys, whose approach to acting he admired. “He was the first person I heard play [Fender] Rhodes, synthesizer and Hammond organ in a funky way that wasn’t necessarily jazz, or otherwise would take fun instruments and bring them back to life, ”he says. “In my opinion, it is to him that we can attribute the return of synthesizers. Shortly after leaving college, I toured with his band. Everything he does is so unsanctified. He’ll blow a trumpet with a helium balloon and things like that. It’s like a mad scientist on stage, running. That was a great learning lesson. “

It is these people Kirby credits as role models when growing up his own father was largely absent. His father, an oral surgeon, was an “honorary hell angel” who turned to Satanism after being involved in a bicycle accident when Kirby was 10 years old. “When he was in the hospital recovering, he made a pact with the devil for his soul to relieve him of some of the pain,” says Kirby. “After that, he got a tattoo of Mephistopheles, the devil’s messenger, on his arm and it was a different person. “

“I just knew that my dad was not like other people’s dads,” he continues. “He wasn’t playing ball or doing healthy activities, he was in his room getting weird and doing drugs. He influenced me in two ways: one, I missed that kind of role model, but on the other hand, he inspired me because he always did his thing. “

Shortly after his father died a few years ago, Kirby embarked on his own spiritual journey. He moved to New York and began following guru Sri Dharma Mittra, after whom he wrote the title track for My Garden, Blueberry Beads. “I don’t even know if I should have brought that up, I don’t want to be here looking like an idiot,” he says. “It is very easy to get carried away by a guru’s teaching where things get a little weird. But my guru told me to take what you want [from his teachings] and use it to the best of your ability. I try to apply that to my music: I want people to take it lightly or not. If people don’t recognize the spiritual element at all, enjoy it however you like. “

“Solange created scenarios that took you out of your element, like rolling a dice to decide the next note.” Photography: Angela Suarez

New York is also where Kirby’s fortunes changed as a struggling artist. He had been renting his apartment there to stay afloat and camping at his mother’s house in California, then he got the call from Solange. They met through mutual friends and Kirby embarked on an exciting songwriting process for his 2016 album A Seat at the Table. “She created scenarios that took you out of your element, like incorporating chance – where you do things like roll a dice to decide the next grade – or give yourself an assignment, ”Kirby says of study sessions. “She would say things like, ‘After seven beats, something will happen or change and I’m not going to tell you what it is.’ You have to invent what changes the chord. It’s a great way to work. “

He compares going to the studio with someone new to get in the ring. “I’m a huge boxing fan, and one of my favorite commentators says, ‘These two guys are going to team up and box!’ That’s cool, but we need to know why. What is at stake? Do they hate each other? In music it is the same. You need to know what you are hearing and what the story is. So I always gravitate towards that. “

Magic can happen when “people are out of their element,” he continues. “It makes me think of one of my favorite jazz records, which is Money Jungle by Duke Ellington, Max Roach and Charles Mingus. Those were three people who were actually doing quite different things and feeling for each other. The legend of that recording session is that they were fighting each other in the studio. The whole record is broken; people play aggressively but do not support each other. There are all kinds of wrong notes, out of tune notes … I love it when things get complicated like this. When people are really uncomfortable, it can be interesting. “

It’s something he experienced a bit playing with Rickie Lee Jones around 2008, the rock musician who recently published a memoir on his life in music. “All respect and love for her, but she was one of the most difficult people I have ever worked with,” he says. “She would do things like, ‘I want to do West Side Story music for my next concert.’ We’d rehearse for eight hours and she’d say, ‘Oh, you’re not doing well.’ He would go to the piano, hit it with the back of his knuckles and say: “I’m not a pianist, but it has to be that way.” Then the concert comes and she doesn’t play a note from West Side Story. She plays songs that I have never heard in my life and I am on stage trying to learn these songs as I go. I am grateful in a way that he forced me to deal with situations. “

Septet came out of a live ensemble performance at the much-loved and now-closed Blue Whale venue in 2019. He is inspired by 1970s jazz-fusion bands like Miles Davis, as well as, among other things, jazz- funk by Herbie Hancock. Odyssey Head Hunters and vibraphonist / marimba Cal Tjader’s 1976 album Amazonas: There’s a strong Brazilian flavor, lots of sublime tactile texture, and a tropical moisture yet it all feels weightless. Kirby’s music, though instrumental, conjures up vivid images: he says the Septet evokes the nature of Los Angeles, things like “the sound of the sprinkler on a hot day” (Rainmaker), “a childlike fantasy of walking around LA with a cougar like my pet “(P64 By My Side) or” a beautiful yellow swallowtail butterfly flying across my porch “(Swallow Tail).” I find the lyrics distracting, “he says.” It’s fun with instrumental music because it gives you a little more room to explore these loose concepts; the lyrics can get in the way. That doesn’t mean I don’t write from an emotional place, I’m not dead inside. But I’m not saying something is about the JFK assassination or something like that when it is not “.

He sees himself more as a character from Ry Cooder, the guitarist who co-directed the Cuban ensemble Buena Vista Social Club. “He’s kind of a genderless musician,” says Kirby. “He just focuses on the guitar and where that fits into different settings. I’m trying to do something similar, but with the keyboard. “

Septet is now available at Stones Throw.

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