Amid the swirling sounds and scenes intersected by Los Angeles’ sprawling freeways, John Carroll Kirby is somewhere at the centre of it all, shirt open, hair slicked back. He circles the city’s buzzing jazz movement with his soul-dappled instrumentals and is a keysman, composer and producer who’s been enlisted 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 shaped in part by Kirby.
He laughs as he describes his own work as “French cat burglar music”: it blends jazz with new age, funk and exotica, flutes often taking centre stage. Tracks are inspired by paintings of ayahuasca visions or stories about dolphins that turn into lost boys. Kirby is of a spiritual persuasion, but he has a sense of humour about it, too.
“I don’t find it interesting to be too serious,” he says. “A lot of British music feels so doom and gloom sometimes. The emotions are so heavy, it’s so dark. I’m like, man, is it really that bad?” Fun is important, he feels, especially when your instrument is the piano – “almost a survival method, because if I were to release overly earnest piano music, it could be garbage”. For the video for recent single Rainmaker, he selected the stylist on the basis that when they met on a fashion magazine shoot “she tried to put me in assless chaps”.
Maybe LA is the reason for his breezy outlook. Kirby beams in from his porch in the leafy enclave of Mount Washington, birds tweeting overhead, a piano perched in the corner where he’s been filming performances on Instagram. The pandemic aside, last year was great for his solo career: he launched My Garden, his first solo album for Stones Throw, to acclaim; released a meditative lockdown release called Conflict; produced a gorgeous comeback record for Eddie Chacon, of Charles & Eddie’s Would I Lie to You? fame; and a film he scored, Cryptozoo, won an award at Sundance.
If anything binds those releases together, it’s their gauzy ease. “It should be a great compliment to say it’s easy to listen to,” he says. “Such a pitfall of being a musician, especially with jazz training, is you want to be tricky. I’m trying to do something that’s a bit more accessible.”
New album Septet, released last week, is Kirby’s first time directing his own ensemble since his formative years in music, when he studied orchestration and composing for big bands. He grew up in Pasadena, California, and took piano lessons while at school but started taking music seriously when the esteemed composer John Clayton became his mentor and Kirby followed him to the University of Southern California. “A lot of people start when they’re five,” he says, “so in some ways I lacked technique because my hands didn’t develop to play piano. So I underdeveloped in that sense. But on the other hand, it really was something that was my own passion.”
Sometimes he would go down to the World Stage arts space in Leimert Park and attend jam sessions with the likes of Kamasi Washington but “if I’m really being honest,” he admits, “those guys were a bit better than me, so it was sometimes hard to hang”. Despite Kirby’s music often being described as jazz, he doesn’t consider himself a part of the blossoming scene in LA. “Jazz is in my heart but there’s things about jazz scenes that turn me off a little,” he says. “They can be pretty insular. Sometimes the focus can be for playing for other musicians as opposed to a broader audience. And maybe on top of that, I don’t have the desire to play things as complex – maybe for lack of ability, or just lack of interest.”
During college he met another bedrock of his musical education, Money Mark, keysman in the Beastie Boys, whose approach to performance he admired. “He was the first person I heard play [Fender] Rhodes, synth and Hammond organ in a funky way that wasn’t necessarily jazz, or otherwise was taking funny instruments and reviving them,” he says. “In my opinion he’s who we can credit with synths coming back. Shortly after I left college, I toured in his band. Everything 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, running around. That was a big learning lesson.”
It’s these people Kirby credits as being role models when, growing up, his own father was largely absent. His dad, an oral surgeon, was an “honorary Hells Angel” who turned to satanism after being involved in a biking accident when Kirby was 10. “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 he was a different person.”
“I just knew that my dad was not like other people’s dads,” he continues. “He wasn’t playing catch or doing wholesome activities, he was in his room getting weird and doing drugs. It influenced me in two ways: one, I missed out on that type of role model but on the other hand, it inspired me because he always did his own thing.”
Not long after his father died some years ago, Kirby embarked on his own spiritual journey. He moved to New York and started following the guru Sri Dharma Mittra, after whom he wrote the lead track from My Garden, Blueberry Beads. “I don’t even know if I should have brought that up – I don’t want to be out here looking like a jackass,” he says. “It’s so easy to get swept up in a guru’s teaching where things get a little funny. But my guru told me to take what you want [from his teachings] and use it the best you can. I try to apply that in my music: I want people to take it lightly or not. If people don’t recognise the spiritual element at all, by all means, enjoy it how you like it.”
New York is also where Kirby’s fortunes turned as a struggling artist. He’d been renting out his apartment there to stay afloat and camping out at his mother’s house back in California – then he got the call from Solange. They’d met through mutual friends and Kirby was launched into a thrilling songwriting process for her 2016 album A Seat at the Table. “She would create scenarios that took you out of your element, like incorporating chance – where you do things like roll a dice to decide the next note – or giving you an assignment,” says Kirby of the studio sessions. “She’d 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 make up what the chord changes to. It’s a great way to work.”
He likens going into the studio with someone new to entering the ring. “I’m a big boxing fan, and one of my favourite commentators says, ‘These two guys are gonna come together and box!’ That’s cool, but we need to know why. What’s at stake? Do they hate each other? In music, it’s the same thing. You need to know what you’re listening to 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 about one of my favourite jazz records, which is Money Jungle by Duke Ellington, Max Roach and Charles Mingus. Those were three people who were really doing quite different things and they’re feeling each other out. The legend of that recording session is that they were fighting with each other in the studio. The whole record is broken; people are playing aggressively but not supporting each other. There’s all kinds of wrong notes, out of tune notes … I love it when things are unsettled like that. Where people are really uncomfortable, it can be interesting.”
It’s something he experienced a little when playing with Rickie Lee Jones circa 2008, the rock musician who has recently released a memoir about her life in music. “Full respect and love to her but she was one of the most difficult people I’ve ever worked with,” he says. “She would do stuff like, ‘I want to do the music from West Side Story for my next gig.’ We’d rehearse for eight hours and she’d go, ‘Oh, you’re not doing it right.’ She’d go to the piano and hit it with the back of her knuckles and goes, ‘I’m not really a piano player, but it needs to be like this.’ Then the gig comes, and she doesn’t play one note of West Side Story. She plays songs I’ve never heard in my life and I’m on stage trying to learn these songs on the fly. I’m grateful in a way because it forced me to just roll with situations.”
Septet came out of a live ensemble performance at the much-loved and now-closed Blue Whale venue in 2019. It’s inspired by 70s jazz-fusion bands like that of Miles Davis, as well as, among other things, Herbie Hancock’s jazz-funk odyssey Head Hunters and the vibraphonist/marimba player Cal Tjader’s 1976 album Amazonas: there’s a strong Brazilian flavour, a lot of sublime, tactile texture, and a tropical humidity even though it all feels weightless. Kirby’s music, though instrumental, conjures vivid imagery: he says Septet evokes the nature of LA, things like “the sound of the sprinkler on a hot day” (Rainmaker), “a childhood fantasy of walking through LA with a mountain lion as my pet” (P64 By My Side) or “a beautiful yellow swallowtail butterfly flying by my porch” (Swallow Tail). “I find lyrics to be distracting,” he says. “It’s fun with instrumental music because it gives you a bit more space to explore these loose concepts; lyrics can get in the way. That’s not to say that I don’t write from an emotional place, I’m not dead inside. But I’m not saying something is about the assassination of JFK or something like that when it’s not.”
He sees himself as more of a Ry Cooder character, the guitarist who co-directed the Cuban ensemble Buena Vista Social Club. “He’s a kind of genreless musician,” says Kirby. “He’s just centred around guitar and where that fits into different scenarios. I’m trying to do something similar, but with the keyboard.”