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John Carroll Kirby - My Garden Music Album Reviews

The Los Angeles pianist, a collaborator of Solange and Frank Ocean, sinks back into spare soul-jazz and meditative new age, occupying a middle ground between deep and easy listening.

Composition is a kind of cultivation: All the best stuff a product of daily toil. Beauty, for those who work at it, is as much a process as a physical product. It’s invisible and stashed deep below the surface, until it occasionally blooms for the benefit of us all. The producer, pianist, and composer John Carroll Kirby, a consummate cultivator and songwriter on recent records by Solange, Frank Ocean, and Harry Styles, has no difficulty coaxing beauty out from the depths of his own square of earth (or home studio). But on this new solo album of cloudless piano compositions for the Los Angeles label Stones Throw, Kirby unintentionally reveals a crucial trade secret of each job: Beauty itself is often no more important than the labor that brings it into the world.
My Garden catches Kirby in the middle of this work, mostly at the piano, and on an array of digital accompaniment: synthesized pads, flutes, and sparse programmed drums that never get in the way of the keyboards. As a pianist, Kirby falls somewhere on a scale between Sun Ra’s blissed-out tappings and Ryuichi Sakamoto’s architectural precision. Despite the clout of Kirby’s past collaborations, who have taken him to unexpected corners of the musical world (location: Kali Uchis), he hasn’t used his solo albums to burnish a reputation as creative polymath or production guru. He’s taken a much quieter path on the music that bears his name, stretching back to 2018’s Meditations in Music, an eight-part ambient suite composed of Minimoog leads and minimal DX7 voices, released on the new-age-inclined Leaving Records. Kirby recently released a collection of piano-only compositions titled Conflict, recorded sometime last year, with the intent to “induce inner calm” in listeners shaken by the global crises triggered by the ongoing pandemic.
The California-raised musician’s songs are so dogged in their pursuit of total aesthetic pleasure, they sound almost aloof in the context of a full album. Kirby’s production taste, melodic invention, and feel for surfacing grooves with the sparest of parts make him an unusually compelling musician. But the songs on My Garden seem unable to make a case for themselves, or for your attention, beyond this. The result is an album that wouldn’t sound out of place in the mood-based playlists of the Spotify universe, even if it would represent the very best of that world.

Take album opener “Blueberry Beads,” which sounds heavily inspired by Head Hunters-era Herbie Hancock. Its sound alone is striking enough for repeat listens—block chords chomp through a swinging drum pattern, each instrument glued together by the sinewy upright bass work of JP Maramba, making this the album’s only collaboration. The song is essentially a single vamp played with laidback force and swagger, and it’s one of the album’s high points. But its single-mindedness amounts to nothing much more than one very cool groove which runs until it doesn’t run anymore—perhaps the point at which Kirby lost interest. There are few dynamics shaping or redirecting the energy flow on My Garden’s nine songs, making for capricious endings. For “Beads,” which runs three and a half minutes, Kirby simply removes the song’s core elements one by one before his piano freestyles across the double bar lines.

There’s a diaristic air to My Garden. Kirby’s songs commence with little preamble, as if we’ve stumbled into a folder containing his works in progress. This isn’t to say the album is carelessly dashed off, but Kirby is content to move quickly and chase new leads when they appear. New ideas pop up in rapid succession, even though the tempos on My Garden never break out of a leisurely stroll. In “Night Croc” and “San Nicolas Island,” Kirby crafts melodies with a neat geometric precision, playful inventions that sometimes seem like they are leading Kirby by the hand, rather than the other way around. Still, his arrangements perpetually expose a deft studio touch. He expertly inserts divergent textures—shimmering Moog swells and paunchy synth-bass hits that break over a song’s surface—without interrupting these daydreams, casting each song in subtly different light.

But these subtleties box My Garden into a gray zone of sorts. This isn’t quite a background accompaniment; nor is it an immersive, deep-listening experience. It’s a collection of short stories, where a novel might make more sense for the approach. Kirby’s competent home production, and his economic arrangements, amount to a rich product that still manages to sound one-dimensional on repeat listenings, with little sonic depth. And his predilection for the occasional bright melody line works at cross purposes with his atmospheric tendencies. The album can never fully let itself recede into pure ambience.

Instead, like the “my” in the title, Kirby’s latest album does feel a tad possessive. Instead of inviting listeners into his music, he’s exposing us to it. You can hear how he works his way through a musical fantasy, but it’s difficult to access the feeling of it, perhaps with the exception of album closer “Wind.” The longest song, it opens with cascading lines that have been digitally edited and chopped in a way that recalls the sloshing runs of Ethiopian pianist Emahoy Tsegué-Maryam Guèbrou. Kirby’s hands work expressively at the piano, teasing at a melancholy style that’s somewhere between rag and gospel, before the chords settle into the grip of a steady drum pattern. It’s the clearest moment of levity across the album—a lone pianist playing with the sounds in his head, not stopping to wonder if anything beautiful will come of it.
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