Though California-based composer, keyboardist, arranger, and session musician John Carroll Kirby has put out a steady stream of records since issuing the solo Travel in 2017, he's been positively prolific since signing to Stones Throw in 2020. Dance Ancestral marks his fifth release for the label. Among them are My Garden, last year's electric jazz masterpiece Septet, and the recent score and soundtrack for Cryptozoo. Kirby's aesthetic for Dance Ancestral was to create an electronic musical meditation on the patterns and routines of life unfolding during an ordinary day. Its title reflects not literal dancing but innate, even instinctual, movements in the choreography of lived experience.
Kirby recruited Canadian producer Yu Su to assist him on this solo journey. The only other guest is ambient/new pioneer Laraaji, who lends his voice to the soaring "Dawn of New Day." Channeling new age, California disco, and the soundtrack sensibilities of composers from Lalo Schifrin to Piero Umiliani, Kirby creates a pulsing, uplifting conversation between elegant textures, sweeping synths, Rhodes pianos, and synthetic beats. Though Laraaji's lyric is simple, it's embedded in the grain of the tune's atmospheric trajectory. A lithe disco leitmotif frames "Pan's Dance," as flute sounds waft and hover over a two-chord vamp, with tabla and conga loops buoying layered synths. "Repettos for You My Lord" commences as a spectral yet tuneful midtempo ballad before shard-like ARP synths, a four-on-the-floor beat, key bass, and ambient synths enter from the margins to surround the vamp and breezy melody in pillowy warmth that introduces a dramatic post-bop piano break.
With the entire release at just over 30 minutes, Kirby makes use of each second, balancing sublime harmonic gifts with trippy progressive asides and melodic invention, as evidenced by the gloriously episodic "Pause on the Ancient Ballcourt." It juxtaposes choral vocals, winding lyric synth (recalling Tangerine Dream's Private Music period), and hypnotic rhythms that bubble and whisper throughout. The single "Frog Life" weds lithe Brazilian funk and retro smooth jazz to exotic, futurist, new age dancefloor grooves. "Messages in Water" is fluid, circular, and languid in its unfolding. Kirby's wispy funk touch channels inspirations from Joe Zawinul to Deodato in its seductive drift. "Tiptoe to the Grave" is not, despite its title, morbid or dark. It's open and airy, melding circular beats and polyrhythms with a journeying, labyrinthine synth that sounds like a cross between a church organ and a harpsichord. The luxuriant backdrop ambience from Kirby and Yu Su adds layered textural dimensions for the melody as it unfolds with relaxed elegance. Closer "Gabriel's Gig" offers Baroque horn music (a synth-impersonating trumpet, strings, and flute) amid a processional melody tempered by and extrapolated upon by contemporary jazz cadences and chime-like choral voices to send Dance Ancestral out cinematically. Though its running time is slight, this set is a gorgeously assembled, emotionally uplifting sonic gem.