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Ben LaMar Gay - Downtown Castles Can Never Block the Sun Music Album Reviews

Ben LaMar Gay - Downtown Castles Can Never Block the Sun Music Album Reviews

On his debut album, the uncategorizable Chicago musician knits together experimental jazz, funk playfulness, Brazilian rhythms, and the sensuality of Prince.

If you’re worried that you’re a latecomer to the work of uncategorizable Chicago musician Ben LaMar Gay, take solace in the certainty that you’re not alone. Gay’s new album, Downtown Castles Can Never Block the Sun, supposedly draws from seven of his previous records, with curious names like Grapes, Benjamim e Edinho, and Confetti in the Sky Like Fireworks. But when you start googling, not one of these albums surface. In this age of Bandcamp and Soundcloud, the cornetist, composer, and vocalist recorded seven albums in seven years but never let anyone outside of his inner circle hear them. Instead, he worked with jazz and experimental artists like Joshua Abrams’ Natural Information Society, Nicole Mitchell, Jaimie Branch and Bitchin Bajas while allowing his own songcraft to incubate to maturity.

Both a debut and a compilation, the confident Downtown Castles is a showcase for Gay’s eclectic sensibility. Fractured, giddy, funky, and meditative, each song and sketch spotlights a different aspect of his talents. The pulsations of “Music for 18 Hairdressers: Braids & Fractals” allude to Steve Reich’s minimalist masterwork Music for 18 Musicians, even as Gay’s buzzing reeds evoke free jazz. Named for iconic Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians co-founder Muhal Richard Abrams, “Muhal” would seem to situate Gay firmly in the Chicago jazz tradition; cornet and bass clarinet creak as he croaks lyrics woven from Abrams’ album titles. But, unlike an Abrams composition, the track throbs, tightens, droops, and flutters like a Prince B-side.

His Purpleness also makes his influence felt on the sensuous highlight “A Seasoning Called Primavera.” An ode to a paramour in braids that melts into an extended cooking metaphor (spiced with Gay’s knowing aside “I get it”), the song bounces atop a fidgety, broken beat, never staying put for long. There are nods to baile funk, footwork, the percolator dance, Thundercat, and D’Angelo, along with a dash of banjo and sawed fiddle. That may sound like a pretentious jumble of references, but Gay knits them so they all sway together.

Downtown Castles picks up sounds from all over the map—and the challenge of tracing those global influences is more fun than it is frustrating. A spoken-word interlude situates Gay in some Southern swampland; the layered voices and sputtering electronics of “Kunni” conjure early TV on the Radio. He finds the sweet spot between New Orleans Dixieland and Rio samba on the jubilant “Miss Nealie Burns.”

That Brazilian rhythmic sensibility weaves its way into most of the music, probably because Gay lives there when he isn’t in Chicago. He melts together violin, shakers, and synth bass on the beautiful “Uvas,” his voice never rising above a whisper. A crackling static pulse provides the bossa nova-inspired beat, as though Gay is transmitting the breezy, murmured music of João Gilberto from another galaxy. This is but one indelible moment among many on Downtown Castles Can Never Block the Sun, an album that is less about fusing jazz, funk, and other genres than it is about elevating the diverse sounds of Earth to the heavens.

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