Ben Lamar Gay’s debut record, Downtown Castles Can Never Block the Sun, is not radio-friendly. It’s difficult, actually, to imagine for whom this music would feel familiar — maybe an experimentally-minded Brazilian club DJ who grew up listening to avant-garde jazz? Needless to say: Downtown Castles contains multitudes. Released in May via International Anthem (Makaya McCraven, Jeff Parker), it belongs firmly in the here and now, where genre bounds are less relevant than ever and an album can be anything it wants — or, in this case, where one album can be just about everything.
Track by track, Downtown Castles moves across the wide spectrum of every sound that could possibly be considered jazz-adjacent — hip-hop, ambient, African and Latin American folkloric music, third-stream classical, Brazilian post-rock, alt-R&B — with a singular confidence and direction that keeps it from feeling like a hodgepodge. As much a debut as it is a “greatest hits” record of sorts, it actually compiles selections from a mass of work Gay recorded over the past seven years but never released. In fact, the album’s title is taken from a mantra repeated across one of his seven (yes, seven) unreleased albums: one called Grapes that I assume we can never hope to hear in its entirety.
It makes sense, then, that this record plays like an opus rather than an up-and-comer testing the waters; Ben Lamar Gay knows what he’s doing, and he does almost all of it himself, playing a huge variety of instruments, singing, guiding us through Sun Ra-inspired chants and producing it all, simmering the sounds together in a psychedelic brew. There’s a little Brainfeeder influence in certain parts, like the Thundercat-ish harmonics of “Kunni” or the chaos of final track “Oh no…not again!”, which smacks of the Flying Lotus’s You’re Dead!. Taken as a whole, though, Downtown Castles is absolutely writhing with originality. It does that thing that only a great record can do: ask you to listen again and again, to find out what it’s really all about. (Let me know if you arrive at an answer).
- Isabel Zacharias, host of Takin’ Off, M-Th 3-6pm