There is no sophomore slump from Ben LaMar Gay. The notion that the composer, conceptualist, and multi-instrumentalist might have blown his wad on his 2018 debut, Downtown Castles Can Never Block the Sun—which was culled from seven albums’ worth of unreleased material—is obliterated by the stylistic breadth, rhythmic scope, and textural originality of the 16 tunes that constitute Open Arms to Open Us.
These are intuitive compositions, sound collages borne of cultural curiosity, piquant contrasts, and Gay’s pack-rat embrace of his sonic experiences. “Sometimes I Forget How Summer Looks on You” begins with a modulated hopscotch between xylophone and keyboard, enjoined by a fusillade of drums and gratefully bewildered talk-song from Gay. It’s suddenly buttressed by a soothing, cooing vocal chorus that intensifies into a loose call-and-response. That leads into “Hood Rich Happy,” which mates the clang of heavy machinery with a distorted, kazoo-like fuzz. Gay’s time in Brazil is dappled into some sun-kissed grooves, just as the deep blues and jazz skronk of his native Chicago sharpens other numbers. The cornet remains his primary performing instrument and is especially prominent on the celebratory closer, “We Gon Win.”
With Open Arms to Open Us Gay has solidified his place in the firmament of the Chicago jazz renaissance, which is delivering a more expansive mode of creative music from a new generation of AACM members that includes Jeff Parker, Makaya McCraven, Jaimie Branch, Angel Bat Dawid, and of course cellist Tomeka Reid, who is featured on the longest track here, “In Tongues and In Droves.”