Thursday, May 17, 2018

CD Review: Ben LaMar Gay - Downtown Castles Never Block The Sun

Ben LaMar Gay
Downtown Castles Can Never Block The Sun
(International Anthem)

Ben LaMar Gay first showed up on my radar as a member of Mike Reed's Flesh and Bone, appearing on the landmark album named for the group that came out on 482 Music last year. But the Chicago cornetist, like many in that city, stays active in a several different projects. Among them, he's worked with Makaya McCraven, Nicole Reed, Matthew Lux and the future funk project Bottle Tree.

On top of all that, Gay recorded seven complete solo albums on his own, which have apparently been sitting dormant on his home computer until now. Downtown Castles Can Never Block The Sun serves as both a solo debut for him and something of a compilation, gathering tracks from this elusive septet of releases-to-be. Anyone looking for a direct line from his work with Reed or Jaimie Branch (he guested on her Fly or Die album last year) will be left scratching their head. ("Muhal" may or may not be a tribute to Muhal Richard Abrams but it doesn't sound anything like one. Anyone who likes to say, "what the hell is this," as they lean in closer to the speakers to hear the answer to that question will have their intrigue satisfied.

If Downtown Castles feels like a compilation, it recalls collections from the early '80s when labels thought nothing of putting sonic experimentation next to music with a groove. My memory of college radio is colored by albums like the Cherry Red label's Perspectives and Distortion which followed that path. Diversity was the order of the day and it made sense.

Beyond that, this album  sounds like the catholic interests of a musician unafraid to jump from style to style. Keyboards and loops factor heavily into the music. Sometimes, like "Jubilee," the dizzying layers of clipped loops only link up because the samples run in sync. What they run in sync sounds chaotic, but Gay nevertheless finds room for one of the album's infrequent brass solos. Just prior to this track "Music for 18 Hairdressers" is built on layers of rhythms that evoke percussive hair cutting. "Galveston" has a long loop reminiscent of Eno's Music for Airports, along with strings that sound like they're transmitted via walkie-talkie.

Elsewhere, Gay adds some vocals to the spare instrumentation of "A Seasoning Called Primavera" whose lyrics combine romance and cooking - and some noises that sound like laptop alarms. "Swim Swim" also features laidback vocals over a poly-rhythms that don't make it easy to feel the downbeat.

He doesn't complete abandon his cornet either. "Miss Nealie Burns" has an old time feel, with banjo and squawky, muted trumpet. The long tones of "Me, Jayve & the Big Bee" feature cornet and saxophone, with an end that sounds like the track might have come from a street recording. (At 1:45 it almost feels like more a tease than anything else.) The closing "Oh no...not again!" includes drums and tuba playing a funky groove for cornet and vocals, which, after falling apart, finds the guitar riff going into 7/4, along with either a melodica or accordion and a wild drumming.

Anyone with a passing knowledge of Ben LaMar Gay might be surprised by the contents of Downtown Castles (the title coming from a lyric on one of the seven albums, which may or may not appear herein). But that's quite the idea that fuels this collection. You never know what will come next.

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