Album of the Week: Quin Kirchner ― The Shadows and the Light

Album of the Week returns with a look at Quin Kirchner's stellar new LP.
By    June 25, 2020

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Will Schube can’t wait for Austin’s first Sweetgreen.

Austin’s Astral Spirits is reviving the city’s long dormant claim that it’s an inspiring hub of creative music. Of course, in the city’s underground, jazz, hip-hop, and rock have long been thriving, but the top layer of Austin’s exports are brushed with broad strokes of white dudes with guitars and beards longer than the line at Franklin’s BBQ. Don’t waste your time. La Barbecue is just as good and the wait is hours shorter. Indie scenes of all varieties have been squeezed out as Amazon, Facebook, Indeed, Apple, TikTok, and every other corporate behemoth invade Texas’ hipster haven. San Antonio and Austin’s surrounding small towns are more inviting homes to musicians who can’t cover rent in an increasingly gentrified city. 

Despite all this, Astral Spirits―which formed from the iconic local Monofonus Press in 2014―has found a devoted audience of listeners and players intent on keeping the city’s experimental, boundary-pushing origins alive. The label looks outside of Texas for many of its acts, and Quin Kirchner’s new album, The Shadows and The Light, is a superlative example of the creative thrills that come with taking chances on exciting artists.

Kirchner is from Chicago and his resume betrays an artist deeply involved with the jazz and experimental scenes that have defined the city’s underground in the 2000s. His first LP with Astral Spirits came out in 2018, and The Shadows and the Light expands upon everything he built with the debut and maximizes it ten-fold. Kirchner is the rare drumming bandleader who uses his position behind the kit to center other instruments and bring a cacophony of melodic ideas to the table produced by collaborators. 

It’s hard for songwriters to release control, but on The Shadows and the Light, Kirchner is as comfortable letting the knotty, intertwining woodwind and brass instruments on “At This Point in Time” lead the show as he is putting his kit at the forefront. But diversity of ideas is what makes The Shadows and the Light so great. “At This Point in Time” toys with a sort of proto-prog-jazz, sort of like driving 60 MPH with the parking brake on. The forward momentum is there, but it’s grounded down by heavy horns and psychedelic solos. Elsewhere, though, like on the first track, “Shadow Intro,” Kirchner impressively handles every instrument. These include: Drum Set, Congas, Percussion, the Roland SH-2000, and a Korg Monotron. 

Kirchner’s success in Chicago’s music scene helps shed light on the approach he takes here. He’s played with Jeff Parker, Rob Mazurek, and Ryley Walker, and his contributions to another stellar Astral Spirits release, Snaketime: The Music of Moondog by Dustin Laurenzi helped create one of the year’s best albums. Laurenzi plays with Bon Iver, and slowly, one starts to realize that the musical community in which these players find themselves expands past geographic or genre-based boundaries. Both Laurenzi and Kirchner are Chicago staples, but have found a welcoming home on Austin’s most exciting label. Lamenting about what Austin used to be or where it’s headed is important to slow irrevocable cultural whitewashing, but music is as borderless as it’s ever been, whether it’s centered in Texas, Chicago, or a cabin in Wisconsin.

Kirchner assembles an impressive group of talent for The Shadows and the Light. The result is an album that is equally indebted to the identity of the collective and the creativity of its originator. Kirchner is at the heart of this album, but it wouldn’t exist without Rob Clearfield on the Wurlitzer or Nick Mazzarella on the soprano saxophone. It’s a new iteration of jazz collaboration, in which a rotating group of players centers around a leader. It recalls Makaya McCraven’s recent efforts, another Chicago drummer playing fast and loose with the tenets of jazz. The Shadows and the Light is deeply rooted in its city but actively involving other communities and styles. It’s a stellar statement from Quin Kirchner and his cast of musicians, born from jazz but boundless in pursuit of something different, something strikingly original.

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