Graded on a Curve:
Ben LaMar Gay,
Downtown Castles Can Never Block the Sun

Do you love jazz? Do you love Tropicalia? Do you love hip-hop? Do you love musical experimentation? Do you love funk? Do you love Raymond Scott? Answering yes to all these questions means you’re one diverse listener. Kudos. It also means that Ben LaMar Gay’s Downtown Castles Can Never Block the Sun is primed to caress your earholes but good. The Chicago-born AACM alum and sometimes Brazilian resident is known for his cornet playing in a variety of progressive contexts, and his debut, drawn from seven unreleased albums made by the artist, expands his range of musical motion to fascinating and often thrilling effect. It’s out May 4 on LP, CD, and digital through International Anthem.

“Vitus Labrusca,” the opening track on Downtown Castles Can Never Block the Sun, is a 30 second plunge into abstraction, mingling avant-garde classical, free jazz, and an echoing atmosphere redolent of studio experimentation. It’s a striking passage, but one that’s shortness allows it to become a sort of prelude to the musical range that follows.

It’s brevity also effectively softens an immediate sharp redirection, as “Muhal” blends electro funk and arty pop with rap and jazz elements (featuring wordless vocals that recall scatting through the prism of beatboxing), all in praise of the great Chicago-based pianist-composer-educator Muhal Richard Abrams (who sadly passed away last year). It’s a tribute that goes deeper than titular acknowledgement; the verses Gay sings in the track are names taken from Abrams’ impressive book of compositions (the chorus is this record’s title delivered by a female backing vocal crew).

But the tribute runs much deeper. Since its ’60s inception, Abrams was the administrator of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians, and International Anthem describes Gay as both a “default descendent” and “long-time participant” of the organization. Those familiar with the AACM will likely appreciate the lack of orthodoxy (even to the general parameters of avant jazz) in Gay’s salute, though the sweet bass clarinet throughout “Muhal” (played by Rob Frye of Bitchin Bajas) does provide a solid jazzy foundation.

The cyclical repetition that shapes “Music for 18 Hairdressers: Braids and Fractals” strengthens the title nod to Steve Reich, but the use of horns brought fellow Minimalist Dickie Landry to mind. The foundation of tough-plucked upright bass maintains the connection to jazz. As the third straight track taken from Grapes, the compilation’s sequencing reinforces Gay’s eclecticism even from inside his unreleased album projects.

And yet there are distinct differences, as “Jubilee” and later in Downtown Castles’ scheme “Galveston” (both selections taken from Freddie Douggie (Live on Juneteenth)) find jazziness (in the former) and free improv and repetition (in the latter) fruitfully merging with abstract electronics. But eclecticism is undeniably a (if not the) major theme here, and that the LP’s disparate stylistic ingredients unwind so pleasurably and coherently makes this collection a nonstop joy.

“A Seasoning Called Primavera,” the first of two consecutive cuts from The Lost Juba Singles, swings wholeheartedly into a u-ground hip-hop zone, though when the violin enters I was reminded of the lack of codified rules that makes K-Rob and Rammellzee’s “Beat Bop” such an enduring blast. And then “Miss Nealie Burns” rounds up banjo, touches of klezmer, Tom Zé, Raymond Scott in “Powerhouse” mode, and hints of hot jazz/ free jazz collectivity/ connectivity; astoundingly, it all goes down swimmingly, and is maybe the record’s standout.

“Me, Jayve and the Big Bee” scales back to just horns to offer a short dose of jazz’s forlorn beauty, while “Uvas” stretches out a bit in its mix of classic Brazilian pop, contempo electronic ambience, and bold string arrangements. “Swim Swim,” and “Kunni,” both from Benjamim e Edinho, extend from “Uvas” and situate Gay as an able practitioner of Brazilian-tinged art-pop, though the soundtrack piece “Melthor Que Tem” (from the documentary short “This Is Bate Bola”) drives home an aversion to remaining in one stylistic place.

“Melthor Que Tem” nicely complements “Gator Teeth,” an extract from the live recording East of the Ryan, and it’s here that Downtown Castles momentarily settles down a bit. “7th Stanza” from 500 Chains is another brief piece, this one combining spoken vocals with (what I think is) accompaniment by the African ngoni (played by Will Faber), and then the lengthier “Oh no… not again!” (a second helping from 500 Chains) begins with Gay’s warm cornet and wordless vocal gliding over a tuba-infused bedrock as the song’s structure navigates a mathy-post-rock locale.

Additionally, there is a momentary free jazz detour and an album-culminating rhythmic tour de force, “Oh no… not again!” illuminating Ben LaMar Gay copious talent and sealing Downtown Castles Can Never Block the Sun as a bountiful vessel of optimism for music’s immediate future. Even if you know Gay’s contribution to Makaya McCraven’s Highly Rare and Jaimie Branch’s Fly or Die, this album will still be an eye-opener. In terms of pure impact, it’s one of the best listens I’ve had so far in 2018.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A

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