premiere: ben lamar gay’s abstract electro-funk ode to spice, springtime and the dance

April 11, 2018
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Ben LaMar Gay’s music is full of wonder. It takes in the endearing glow of the natural world, plus the endless variety of man-made refractions, and then processes those beams and flickers into something strikingly original. Sometimes Ben’s results sound like ambient jazz; at other times, like sensually theoretical funk; and often like pastoral poetry laid out in knowing beat verse over a bed of oddly textured rhythm that’s way better off not being described by a corny adjective-and-noun combo. One thing the Chicago singer/producer/multi-instrumentalist’s work never does is loses its humanity or its aspiration towards the sublime.
Downtown Castles Can Never Block The Sun by Ben LaMar Gay
Born on the South Side, Ben is a decade-plus veteran of the city’s rich improvisational and experimental music scene, who’s recorded and performed in a variety of settings — with old and young jazz luminaries such as Nicole Mitchell and Makaya McCraven, with house legends like Theo Parrish and Wajeed, and with the multi-disciplinary artist Theaster Gates, among many. (We premiered a track he made with his group, Bottle Tree, last year.) If there’s a unifying feature to his work, it’s that he actively engages with what Fred Moten has called “the aesthetics of the black radical tradition.” And “A Seasoning Called Primavera,” a song from Downtown Castles Can Never Block the Sun, the first album released under his own name, comprised of work made over the last “seven or eight years,” falls directly into a space of warm black musical abstraction Ben calls home.

“Primavera” means spring in a variety of Romance languages (including Portuguese which Ben speaks — he regularly collaborates with Brazilian musicians), and Ben tells AFROPUNK that the Windy City’s engagement with the season is what he was thinking of when writing it.

“Chicagoans are always waiting on spring, never appreciating it when it’s there. And then when she runs away pissed off and goes to the train station — like in those old romantic movies — we have to catch her before she boards that train and leaves Chicago. There’s many cats in this city right now who are like, ‘damn, where’s spring? All I can remember is that spring had braids in their hair.’” That last bit is a quote of what passes for the song’s chorus, apropos during the unseasonably cold April.

Yet this “Primavera” also hints at an ineffable and spiritual quality, a flavor and a feeling, one with black cultural meaning. Stocked with a recipe’s worth of cooking metaphors, the song calls it a rare spice (“In Chitown, it’s hard to find this herb, and when it grows it takes forever”); but in another verse, it becomes an ingredient of street-dance cultures on two continents, connecting Chicago’s footwork and Rio de Janeiro’s baile funk (“Different fruits same African roots”).

This wonderful slice of literal and metaphorical globetrotting is made from flowing layers of electronics, drum programming and handclaps, but also features a banjo, a thumb piano and violin breakdown. It’s a rich and busy musical concoction, tasting of light and bloom. Don’t miss before it’s gone.

Ben LaMar Gay’s Downtown Castles Can Never Block The Sun is out on International Anthem in early May

(Image by Maren Celest)