Chicago’s Ben LaMar Gay is one of the most mercurial musicians in a city full of them. He’s a jazz cornetist who came up through the AACM and then spent several years living and working in Brazil earlier in the decade. He’s logged time in jazz groups such as Mike Reed’s Flesh & Bone and Greg Ward‘s 10 Tongues, but one of his most exciting projects, Bottle Tree, is a progressive R&B trio. He’s also worked with Joshua Abrams, Makaya McCraven, Theaster Gates, and Nicole Mitchell, as well as with underground weirdos El Is a Sound of Joy. He loves music and doesn’t care where it takes him.
One of the frustrating things about my job is trying to persuade the general public that, say, not only might a jazz cornetist be interested in Brazilian music and soul, but also that he can play all of it with assurance, originality, and precision. Musicians are often just as omnivorous in their tastes and interests as listeners are, and Gay is a model for such broad thinking and creativity.
On May 4, Gay will release Downtown Castles Can Never Block the Sun, his long-overdue solo debut, on International Anthem. He blows some cornet here and there, but he sings more than he plays his horn. By and large he works as a studio producer, crafting richly overdubbed tracks with a multifarious crew that includes locals such as drummer Tommaso Moretti (Bottle Tree) and saxophonist Jayve Montgomery, somebody credited as “Some Yoga Teacher” (playing banjo), and several Brazilian musicians. More than anything he’s made, the album defies attempts to locate its stylistic turf—it sprawls as widely as the U.S. or Brazil.
On Downtown Castles traditional Brazilian music collides with electro R&B, techno, jazz, noise, and homemade hybrids. Gay picked its songs from a huge trove he recorded over the past seven years—he’d conceived of that material as seven separate albums, but he never made an attempt to release any of them. When I ran into Gay last night, he called this his greatest-hits album, joking about those old late-night TV ads for Time-Life music collections that interrupt their interminably scrolling lists of track names with the amped-up exhortations of a pitchman telling you what PO box to send your money to.
Despite that seven-year span, the album’s 15 tracks hang together well. On “A Seasoning Called Primavera” Gay sing-talks over a lean, infectious electro groove that’s reminiscent of vintage Rio de Janeiro baile funk, and the lyrics reference his upbringing in Chicago—he name-checks Cajmere‘s techno hit “The Percolator.” Like everything else on the album, though, it resists simple categorization, especially after the entrance of M’rald Calhoun’s striated violin, which approximates a Brazilian fiddle called a rabeca.
“Miss Nealie Burns” could be a samba sing-along with a touch of Django Reinhardt, but Gay’s horn conjures the swing era, with wild effects worthy of early Duke Ellington trumpeter Bubber Miley. This morning the Reader is pleased to share the irresistible “Swim Swim,” a stuttery track dominated by piquant strumming on what sounds like a cavaquinho (a Brazilian lute) and Gay’s conversationally soulful vocals. Gay claims its vibe was inspired by the expressions and gestures of Giulietta Masina in the classic Federico Fellini film Nights of Cabiria.
Eva-Maria Houben, Rebecca Lane, and Samuel Dunscombe, Observing Objects (Edition Wandelweiser)
Trespass Trio, The Spirit of Piteşti (Clean Feed)
Gavin Bryars, The Fifth Century (ECM)
The Notations, Still Here 1967-1973 (Numero Group)
Paula Matthusen, Pieces for People (Innova)