The musical loves of Ben LaMar Gay are very varied. Infused with the blues of his hometown of Chicago and an integral part of his local jazz community, the cornetist and composer embraces a wide range of music, making it resonate through his horn through his vibrant, mercurial songs. And he also likes “The Alphabet Song”. Like, really like it.
“Dude, this is the worst shit in the world!” He enthuses over a video call in his kitchen on the south side of Chicago. “The ending, ‘Now that I know my AB-C’s, next time won’t you sing with me?’ You invite someone to learn the building blocks of communication. It is so simple and yet so beautiful. Such enthusiasm soon spills over into reflections on liberating the learning of another language, on how the body acts as a sound resonator (“oxygen goes through this machine!”) And on his recent travels. across Nigeria and Rwanda. Most often he refers to music as a portal to a new world.
The new “Open Arms to Open Us” breaks through all kinds of portals, plunging into the dawn of jazz through its vibrant present moment, with reflections of woozy hip-hop, princely funk, wordless hoots, Tropicália and gospel yelping thrown in for good measure. Fittingly, it also features Gay’s own version of an alphabet song, sung in Igbo by entertainer, choreographer, administrator and educator Onye Ozuzu. “It’s powerful to hear the alphabet of a different language, the elements that make up the language,” he says. “Onye is half Igbo and couldn’t even speak his father’s language.”
Despite more than a decade on the Chicago stage, working with dance choreographers and as a member of the revered Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM), “Open Arms” could be considered her debut album to strictly speaking. Previously, he had recorded the equivalent of seven music albums, “imagining I had an audience that would listen to him – and I really didn’t care if they heard it.” In 2018, International Anthem selected songs for the massive “Downtown Castles Can Never Block the Sun”. (The label has since made these full albums available online.)
Gay attributes his musical approach to the magpie to his father’s record collection and his love for this music. His father’s family dates back several generations to Windy City, while his mother’s family came to northern Alabama during the great migration of the 20th century. “As soon as he got off to work, man, I would fire up the JBLs and just start exploring,” he says, adding that his dad’s records had become “portals to see the world and hear the world.” He also learned by example, as his father’s love for music was expressed in informal jam sessions with friends and cousins on weekends: “He would get together with his friends and had this festive environment for these lovers to come and drink, party, smoke and jam, and just make a sound together. People who work hard, it’s like, okay, it’s Saturday. Saturdays were amazing.
Gay, like many music-loving children of his generation, first dabbled in beatmaking, before turning to the trumpet in high school. About 13 years ago, he switched to the cornet. At some point, Gay became disenchanted with life in Chicago and decamped to Brazil, whose music has always served as “the first portal to the world, to the real world, outside the bubble of the United States.” He met local players and recalled his education in the Brazilian notion of samba de mesa, of playing music “when everyone is at the table, the atmosphere, the core of the party is at the table”. He lived in Brazil for three years, until an invitation to attend Red Bull Music Academy brought him back to the United States.
This informal playfulness, this quality of playing with friends without being the central point, continues through his solo work. That’s Gay’s name on “Open Arms to Open Us,” but he’s equally quick to cede the limelight to a wide range of vocals and instruments. George Lewis, avant-garde jazz trombonist and tireless electronics innovator and educator, recently attended one of Gay’s shows.
“He performed on cornet and various electronic items, but the piece wasn’t about him standing out,” Lewis says. “Rather, he divided the sound agency between the eight members of the ensemble and himself to produce a supple and limpid psychic counterpoint.”
The opening “Sometimes I Forget How Summer Looks On You” begins with a gurgling sound of synths and brisk drumbeats, Gay’s voice purring against the teeming backdrop, as nonchalant as a whispered bossa nova. But Gay is quick to add that he actually takes inspiration from Chicago’s own blues tradition, always pulling and pushing against the beat. He thanks fellow Chicago reed Roscoe Mitchell and a comment he once made to her: “Don’t play on the 1!” It can sound like both a jazz song, an old Organized Noize beat from the late ’90s, or a wobbly pop melody without ever settling on a particular sound. As the song comes to a boil and an array of mellow pop choirs intermingle with its own, it erupts into a looping ecstatic cry of “Hallelujah!”
Gay says the song is about a family member (“a quiet dedication”) and most of the other songs on the album serve as portraits set in sound. Each song begins with an idea and the closest instrument. While he’s working, “sometimes I hear voices that I know, like friends, and I put those voices in there and build from there,” he says. The assembly of songs and textures has the feel and flow of a rhythm strip, never settling in one place for long. Only four of the 17 tracks exceed the 3h30 mark. Field recordings, electronic scribbles, and spoken words often appear. The brief “Mestre Candeia’s Denim Hat” marries underwater blips and crisp snares with an unbalanced synth solo, while “S’Phisticated Lady” could be pulled straight from a double Dutch vocals on the asphalt of the pitch. game. It leads to the triumphant “We Gon Win”. Gay ranges from the screams of “the jungle” of Duke Ellington’s trumpeter Cootie Williams to the avant-garde screams of the AACM to the stomping of an HBCU marching band, as he and the backing singers chant the title.
His initial intention for the album was to feature a live band, though the pandemic quickly shattered that idea, leaving him to build each song layer by layer, sometimes with a full group, sometimes with friends sending in their contributions.
Anglo-Rwandan singer, actress, dancer and choreographer Dorothée Munyaneza first met Gay in 2018 when they were both invited to the Dance Gathering in Lagos, Nigeria. “We improvised together one evening, him on the cornet and I singing in Kinyarwanda,” she recalls. “It was like he understood the rhythm of my language and the melody; it was a very strong moment. He has a unique way of extracting sounds from different types of instruments and objects that moves, moves and inspires me every time.
When Gay contacted her to contribute vocals for the album, Munyaneza moved into a makeshift studio in her bathroom and recorded the vocals of “Nyuzura”. The title translates to “give me light” and Munyaneza sings it in her native language. “You hear a very deep Rwandan culture in there,” Gay says enthusiastically. “It flows in Kinyarwanda and then it sticks in a ‘yo!’ and that’s pure hip-hop culture. When you hear a “yo!” it’s the South Bronx. Fittingly, the plucked strings that underlie the track come from a Gay citara purchased during of a trip through Mexico.
In the notes accompanying the album’s launch, Gay mentions a trip back to Alabama to visit his extended family, with a great aunt noting as they walked through farmland that she could still hear the pounding of her. late father there, even decades later. This phantasmal sound, this subliminal rhythm, detached from time but linked to the Earth, informed Gay’s approach to the album. “I played in small villages in Western Europe, in Africa,” he says. “When you go to these little places, especially when you travel with sound, it makes you realize that most of the folk cultures are the same. These people pick up instruments in their surroundings and try to imitate their surroundings. “
Ultimately, he sees “Open Arms to Open Us” as something for his nieces to discover when “they’re like 40,” no matter they’re barely 6 now. The bits and pieces encrusted with Igbo, Kinyarwanda, the interludes of spoken words and the conversations overheard, held together by the vocal tones that Gay arouses on his muted horn, all speak of a future still without a name: “When they get older and they’re between 35 and 40 and they put on this record like, ‘Oh, uncle Benji told me that.’ It’s that little thing for those special people to figure out at some point when they may need it. “
It’s a transmission as simple and universal as ABC.