When There's Love Around is Kiefer Shackelford's second full-length from Stones Throw in 2021. The first, Between Days, appeared in April, and showcased a more elegantly detailed, laid-back presentation. This set differs in approach yet underscores it overall. Kiefer enlisted -- for the first time -- a live band to work with him at Jazzy Jeff's studio. His cast includes saxophonist Josh Johnson, Will Logan and DJ Harrison on drums, Sam Wilkes on bass, and Andy McCauley on electric bass and guitar.
The set is divided into halves. The first meditates on his often-lonely childhood, while the second grieves for his recently deceased grandmother. Despite the melancholy emotion, the vibe here is blissful and sunny. Kiefer composed all but one of the set's 12 tracks. The title cut is a cover of the Crusaders' tune recorded in 1974. Kiefer pays a lovely homage to their pianist Joe Sample's timing, phrasing, and open, assonant lyricism, melding electric and acoustic pianos above a ticking, skittering beat, a slowly wandering bassline, and layers of cascading synths. Another standout is the contemporary jazz vibe in "Lift Somebody Up," wherein Johnson's lyric sax playing meets Kiefer's maximal piano while the band erects feel-good grooves -- and funky breaks -- behind them. "Crybaby" is a hypnotic midtempo ballad that weds Latin percussion, piano, harp, and a dubwise bassline in a trancey cadence that follows a gentle winding vamp. It's eerie, haunting, and utterly lovely. "Curly" recalls Three Sounds' pianist/keyboardist Gene Harris' graceful take on jazz-funk. Sampled strings pulse along with synth and kick drums before a bluesy piano and sax melody emerge, then melt into the progression. "Areti's Love" is a glorious ballad wherein Theremin, synth, and acoustic piano dovetail in a detailed harmony that could have been penned by George Duke. Throughout the tune, spacy psychedelic production effects frame the poignant, even spiritual lyricism in Kiefer's piano playing. Closer "I Love My Friends" is spidery jazz-funk with a head-nodding beat framed by hi-hat, snare, and ride cymbals that pulse under vamping guitars, a loping bassline, and a gritty keyboard progression from Kiefer worthy of vintage Herbie Hancock. A meaty yet gloriously expansive acoustic piano break near the end amplifies that impression. When There's Love Around sounds like Kiefer's first fully formed outing. These deceptively complex, melodic tunes are beautifully written, arranged, and presented with organic-sounding production that balances the lyric center of each composition with texturally spacious warmth and imagination. This is easily his finest outing to date.