In an essay accompanying Open Arms to Open Us (International Anthem), composer-cornetist Ben LaMar Gay says his latest album is part of the extended death terror many have felt since the start of the pandemic. “What can I leave behind for the young people in my life?” he asks. Open Arms to Open Us sounds more effusive than most existential crises, and if we’re talking legacies, the album is Gay’s most cohesive artifact to date; his 2018 debut album, Downtown Castles Can Never Block the Sun, compiled highlights from a whopping seven unreleased albums. (He’s since released five of them: 500 Chains, Grapes, Confetti in the Sky Like Fireworks, Benjamim e Edinho, and East of the Ryan.) Joined by a remarkable roster of Chicago artists, including Ayanna Woods, Tomeka Reid, Angel Bat Dawid, Gira Dahnee, and poet A. Martinez, Gay remains a globe-spinning polyglot on Open Arms to Open Us. He has so many references at play that it’s hard to name every one—they include samba, New Orleans funeral-band dirges, schoolyard stomp-chants, and the Igbo alphabet, to barely scratch the surface—and all of them mesh exhilaratingly with Gay’s jazz-contoured imagination and pliant voice. Lead single and opening track “Sometimes I Forget How Summer Looks on You” is a dreamy benediction to vanishing summer days, with psychedelic synths and ethereal backing vocals (courtesy of Ohmme) winding around an almost devotional organ progression. It’s one of the most captivating things I’ve heard all year, and it more or less sets the tone for the rest of the record, which includes wonders such as the hard-edged yet sultry “Bang Melodically Bang” and the divinely cyclical “Nyuzura” (featuring British-Rwandan vocalist Dorothée Munyaneza). At a mere 45 minutes, Open Arms to Open Us feels like it ends too soon, but it also ends right. On “We Gon Win,” Gay lays down an unerring looped bass-synth melody, over which he flows on cornet in a quartet with trombonist Matthew Davis, flutist Rob Frye, and drummer Tommaso Moretti. By the time the title occurs in the lyrics, halfway through the song, we’ve long since been assured of the victory. Open Arms to Open Us ends there, but Gay’s message to the future resonates: we lived, and how.
Ben LaMar Gay’s Open Arms to Open Us drops 11/19 and is available through Bandcamp.