Lyndon Pike reveals the evenly keeled composer, John Caroll Kirby

Illustration by Lyndon Pike

Los Angeles native, journeyman, keyboardist, composer, and producer John Caroll Kirby began his career as a session musician in the early 2000s. Having graced Grammy-nominated songs by Norah Jones (Chasing Pirates) and Solange (Cranes in the Sky) as well as providing colour and tone on recordings by Sébastien Tellier, Bat for Lashes, Frank Ocean, Harry Styles, Madeleine Peyroux and more, Kirby’s session work CV is nothing short of prolific and held in the highest regard.

In 2017, Kirby branched out and started making his own albums, a series of personal recordings reflecting his influences, lifestyle, and immediate surroundings. His sound oscillates between ambient and new age, progressive and free form jazz, easy listening, and neo soul styles, all of which encapsulate his humble but nuanced ability to remain a strong presence throughout the recording process without having to steal the limelight.

Raised in a Pasadena home that once belonged to the influential architect Charles Greene, it is within the Arroyo Seco area of Los Angeles that Kirby feels at home. It was here in 2020 that he realised the album that gained him international exposure, entitled My Garden. Released on the influential and cult record label Stones Throw, My Garden was a glimpse into Kirby’s surroundings that were the most geographically personal to him. There is even a track on the album recorded in Sydney whilst staying with a friend at Tamarama Beach, entitled By the Sea.

During the past year and a half, Kirby has used the abundant time and space to reflect and record a cathartic album reflecting on lockdown that has a melancholy beneath the bounce. The album is Septet, a change in direction from his five previous releases in that he enlisted a group of musicians to assist: Deantoni Parks on drums, Tracy Wannomae and Logan Horne on woodwinds, JP Maramba on bass, Nick Mancini, mallets and David Leach on percussion. It’s through this fleshed out lineup that the recent album marks a slight change in his sound.

Septet was recorded live in Kirby’s studio and has a certain 1970s jazz fusion sound to it. Improvisational in parts, it reveals its depths further upon each listen. At first, the cosmic melodies, jazz-funk grooves, heavily layered horns and percussion rhythms can be experienced almost as background music; seemingly the album wouldn’t sound out of place on a typical Spotify Chill Jazz playlist. However, it’s the subtleties of Kirby’s keyboard wizardry underpinning the guest players—studio session experts all—where the magic starts to happen. It’s more a spiritual than a physical listening experience.

Despite Kirby’s exquisite finesse, he’s no stranger to the odd improvisational misstep, such as a flubbed chord on the keyboard during one track. Rather than insist on a retake, he chose instead to incorporate it into the song. “As a jazz musician, it’s fun to play with being irreverent, it’s fun to play with mistakes. Sometimes even in my work as a session musician, I’ll try to do that. I might try to create a character who’s playing the piano, not necessarily me, who might be drunk or something and who would make mistakes. I enjoy playing with that kind of stuff,” he once proclaimed in an interview with the music magazine Fader.

Influenced by the easy, laid-back West Coast jazz sound created by icons such as Art Pepper and Shelly Manne, Kirby finds solace in instrumental compositions rather than vocal intrusions. He claims: “As you’re composing, you’re not being told what the song is about because of the words. You’re free, because you can create this melody, and you’re letting the meaning of the song develop as you’re composing. I want to entice people. I understand that there’s other stuff that they could be listening to, and don’t want to make things too complicated.”

Listen on Spotify – A John Carroll Kirby Primer