Already at the leading edge of the UK jazz scene, producer and multi-instrumentalist Ben Marc steps into the spotlight with his upcoming ‘Breathe Suite’ EP, set for release via LA imprint Innovative Leisure on 1st October. As premiered on Wonderland, poet-performer Rarelyalways and saxophonist Shabaka Hutchings add their freeform flourishes to first offering ‘Breathe Suite B’. A swirling climax is reached as the vocalists chorus “breathe” over and over, then fading out as a police siren whirrs – a powerful “pause for reflection,” says Marc, on the tumult of the past year. Marc was finishing the EP during lockdown when the death of George Floyd shook the world and, as a result, he and vocalist Midnight Roba steered the release in a more contemplative direction:
“We wanted to make something meditative to help people through this traumatic time. The video shows a day in a life of a young black girl. At the start of the film it shows her struggles, a panic, then a sense of hiding and running away from daily problems. As the film develops it progresses into this girl finding peace, using contemplation and individual thought processes. The later part of the film, especially in the club, it brings together a sense of collective thoughts, struggles, happiness and up-rising.”
Marc, the alias of Neil Charles, has quite the musical pedigree. He grew up splitting his time between Birmingham and Carriacou in the Caribbean: at school in the English city, he started taking classical music lessons aged 10, while back on the island, he got into guitar thanks to the street performers who’d play soca music at family events and with whom he ended up playing as a young boy, going from house to house. At home, his musical upbringing was just as varied. “My dad would be playing Bob Marley and my mum would be playing Blondie. That and classical music was normal.”
After touring the world in school orchestras, Marc moved to London to take classical double bass at the prestigious Trinity College of Music, where Fela Kuti once studied, under the tutelage of double bassist Chi-chi Nwanoku. “I knew I had to come to London to study with her,” he says. “There weren’t many people who looked like me in classical music. I got stopped by the police all the time in central London, on my way to Trinity.” But despite his conservatoire training, he was never able to professionally puncture the stuffy world of orchestras. “I stopped playing double bass for four years because no one was employing people like me,” he says. “I knew I was good but I wasn’t even getting auditions. Eventually, I stopped practising.”
It wasn’t until a chance meeting in Brixton with Gary Crosby, linchpin of Tomorrow’s Warriors – the crucial London jazz educators that connect the UK new wave luminaries, from Nubya Garcia to Moses Boyd – that the possibility of jazz shone like a beacon. “He was Black and holding a double bass, so I went up to him on the street and tapped him on the shoulder to find out what he was doing,” says Marc. It was the start of a game-changing journey that would see him play first with smart jazz group Empirical and then led him to forming the free-jazz trio Zed-U, alongside Shabaka Hutchings (Sons of Kemet, The Comet is Coming) and drummer Tom Skinner. With Zed-U, Marc’s passion for electronic music began to bubble up. He and Hutchings would frequent London nightclubs together, soaking in the sounds of garage, broken beat and drum’n’bass at iconic former spots such as The End and Plastic People. He even took Hutchings to his first house and techno night, where DJs like Sven Vath and Ricardo Villolobos would man the decks – influences that led Marc to produce a house EP for the London-based label Atjazz. His work with other key figures has been building up, too: last year, he joined keysman Ashley Henry on the latter’s track ‘The Mighty’, which Marc wrote and produced.
In his new music, Ben Marc has unified these influences into a sublime whole. Now signed to LA’s Innovative Leisure, he’s found a home alongside similarly future-thinking artists like Badbadnotgood, Nosaj Thing, Rarelyalways and Jimmy Edgar. ‘Breathe Suite’ a lustrous EP of sweeping strings, rippling piano and meditative vocals: two suites that show off Marc’s gift for composing and arranging, bookended by two stirring improvisations.