Greg Foat likes to build up, up, up in search of transcendence, augmenting his keyboard playing with so many choirs, horns, and strings that his music sometimes sounds like a ‘70s Joni Mitchell album stripped of vocals, or maybe Kamasi Washington if he got a gig at a seaside resort. Yet the English musician is equally gifted at beatless new-age meditations, and it’s at this lower altitude that he meets Italian artist Gigi Masin on their collaboration album Dolphin. This might not be the most immediately dazzling or symphonically thrilling album in the formidable run Foat’s kept up since 2011, when his Greg Foat Group debuted with the mincing prog-jazz of Dark Is the Sun. But it’s a subtle breakthrough in the way it balances the rhythmic and ambient poles of his sound.

After opener “Lee” drones without interruption for eight and a half minutes, the drum fill that opens “London Nights” is liable to make listeners wonder if they haven’t stumbled into an advertisement or accidentally shuffled to a different record. It’s the first time the two musicians let any empty space into the album, and it feels shocking at first, like a dreamer rising to consciousness. But Dolphin’s sequencing quickly falls into a rhythm, with its long, drumless pieces (“Lee,” “Sabena,” Your Move” divided by more beat-heavy tracks (“London Nights,” “Love Theme,” “Viento Calido”) and two-minute interludes (“Dolphin,” “Leo Theo.”) The album seems to continually unfurl and coil itself back up again, and at 50 minutes, it’s long enough to feel expansive without overstaying its welcome (the vinyl version is shorter, excising “Your Move”). Compare this to Foat’s prior album Off-Piste, a collaboration with saxophonist Art Themen, where the kitschy cantina jazz on the second half felt jarring after the crystalline compositions on the first.

After stumbling across Masin’s 1986 crate-digger classic Wind, Foat inquired about a collaboration. Certainly this sounds far more like a Foat project than one of Masin’s dusky, stately ambient albums. But there’s a mournfulness to the eight tracks on Dolphin, a sense of lengthening shadows, and “London Nights” is cheerful only in comparison to “Lee.” Angel-choir synth presets take the place of Foat’s beloved Beach Boys harmonies, perhaps due to COVID concerns that required most of the album’s recording to take place remotely, and they lend “London Nights” a slightly gothic tenor reminiscent of the miasmatic German jazz band Bohren & der Club of Gore. This music feels breezy and light while at the same time swelling with sadness. It’s a longtime strength of Masin’s, especially on his albums with Gaussian Curve. If Foat defines the sound of the album, Masin defines the way it feels.

This means Dolphin takes a little more time to sneak up on the listener than most of Foat’s work. He’s the kind of artist who comes on strong off the bat; his music is expensive-sounding, sumptuously arranged, relentless in its pursuit of beauty and transcendence, generally easy to listen to, and surprisingly groovy at times. On first listen, this more muted record will probably scan as enjoyable but not mind-blowing the way your first spin of Symphonie Pacifique might be. Its strengths—its command of mood, its sequencing, its pacing, its understanding of ambient music—aren’t the kind of things that hit the listener in the face on a first listen. Luckily, the surface is seductive enough to draw us in over and over again so we can discover its depths for ourselves.

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Greg Foat / Gigi Masin: Dolphin