A wet afternoon in the ‘Big Smoke’ is brightened by a quip about the ‘Windy City’. Ben LaMar Gay describes the latter, Chicago, as ‘country’ to the former, London, the urban sprawl. He then invites the audience at an impressively full matinee to be part of an ongoing transatlantic exchange that has already seen him and fellow Chicagoans Makaya McCraven and Jamie Branch work with young Brits in the past year or so.
The cornet player-electronicist-vocalist is here with his own quartet rather than local guests and there is a crackle of anticipation in the room at the prospect of him playing material from Downtown Castles Can Never Block The Sun, an album compiled from seven previously unreleased sets of music. All of which makes the point that the Chicagoan is nothing if not productive, but the sound palette he creates with a very cohesive band shows that quality matches quantity. Sat at a table with a couple of consoles for effects and beats, Gay, his distinctive red cap and dark blue jacket giving him the allure of an industrial revolution factory worker, channels the resources around with impressive aplomb. The combination of the digital drone and drag of his programming, the brooding rumble of Josh Sirotiak‘s tuba and the understated but penetrating flicker of Tomasso Moretti‘s drums makes for an enticing canvas upon which colours can be splashed. Will Faber‘s guitar is a vivid pastel in the mix, its precise, aqueous arpeggios enhancing the flow of the arrangements without flooding the upper or middle range. Gay’s brass pierces the air with a stark, melancholic beauty steeped in a far-reaching lineage of significant horn players that would include anybody from Roy Eldridge to Don Cherry. Yet, as the set unfolds, there is a more distinct resonance of Chicago in the 1990s and millennium, typified by Tortoise, that permeates the music, which builds a solid bridge between the dark undercurrents of dub and hip-hop and the light-and-shade of improvisation. Lines loop and motifs mutate, as the 21st century artist’s border crossing and time travelling gain steady traction, pushing Gay to the AEC axiom of ‘Great black music: ancient to future’.
His understanding of that heritage comes into focus in a few thrilling moments that send a notable tremor of excitement around the room. Firstly, he reaches for a melodica and plays the most charming, chugging riffs that vaguely recall the great Hermeto Pascoal’s singular Afro-Brazilian meta-modernism. The child-like brightness makes for a fine contrast to the breathy moan of Sirotiak’s bansuri flute. Secondly, Gay launches into a funky hybrid of rapped and sung choruses over a riveting, zigzag cowbell beat that underlines the Latin subtext. There is a spark in this sign-off that confirms Gay as ‘country boy’ who is more than a match for the big city.
– Kevin Le Gendre