Ben Marc

Agent: Jonathan Mattson
Territory: North America
Label: Innovative Liesure



PRESS: Pitchfork (Glass Effect)
Pitchfork (Breathe Suite) | Jazzwise | Clash

It’s a rare talent that can link Radiohead’s Johnny Greenwood, Ethio-jazz pioneer Mulatu Astatke, Afrofuturists Sun Ra Arkestra, and grime legend Dizzee Rascal but Ben Marc has long blurred musical worlds and crisscrossed boundaries. On double and bass guitar, he flits between jazz, classical and electronic music, whether playing on Greenwood’s award-winning score for the film The Master or touring with Astatke for over 10 years, as well as working with the likes of Matthew Herbert, Charles Mingus, China Moses and Soweto Kinch – and even joining Tina Turner once onstage.

But as a producer and multi-instrumentalist at the leading edge of the UK jazz scene, Ben Marc is now stepping into the spotlight with his debut solo album, Glass Effect. Its title speaks to the limited perception of black musicians as being only of one genre – and to shattering expectations. “There’s a glass ceiling in most of the areas I’ve been working in: making it in classical music; the lack of Black producers at the top in electronic music,” says Marc. “There’s so many different sides to being a Black musician in London. Evan Parker is a massive influence for me one minute and the next it’s Common, and then Mount Kimbie.” 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 practicing.”

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 form the free-jazz trio Zed-U, alongside saxophonist 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. First up is 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. The opening track ‘Breathe Suite A’ sees a child choir chant “I’ll raise my voice / you raise your hand / I’ll hold the truth / Until you understand” over gossamer harp and swirling cymbals, a potent address to injustice that recalls Alice Coltrane and LA-based composer Miguel Atwood Ferguson. Marc’s labelmate, the poet-performer Rarelyalways, and  saxophonist Hutchings, meanwhile, add their freeform flourishes to its reprise, ‘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,” he says.

The album Glass Effect is to follow, underlining Marc’s evolution as an artist questing for a distinctive sound: lambent, low-key, and yet dizzyingly intricate. The opening track, ‘Way We  Are’, is a grand statement of intent, showcasing his knack for interlocking grooves, string arrangements, electronic beats, and killer basslines, licked by folk guitar flourishes. The title track brings groove, free jazz, and hypnotic repetition into the chillout room, while ‘Straight No  Chasing’ has echoes of psychedelic soul and ‘Sweet Nineteen’, krautrock. Rhythms are inventive and mesmeric: ‘Sometimes Slow’ turns xylophone bars into a glistening beat, the live drums throughout giving the feel of organic dance music, as if the songs are living, breathing organisms.

One of the reasons that he started writing Glass Effect, says Marc, was going to nightclubs in Ibiza and experiencing the heady sun-dappled euphoria of a summery dancefloor, as well as the beat-driven production of artists like Four Tet, Bonobo, Machinedrum, DJ Shadow, and Madlib. But his album also feels unmistakably London: on ‘Jawbone’, there are echoes of broken beat, the genre that came out of house and 2step in the early-2000s, while the Mike Skinner of the new UK scene, Joshua Idehen, intones over the brass-led ‘Dark Clouds’ about the resilience of being a Black man in the city. Another standout feature comes from Virginia-born Judi Jackson, who lends her exceptional voice to ‘Give Me Time’.

Ultimately, Glass Effect is an uplifting record. ‘Keep Moving’, a track Marc wrote in Japan in a hotel room at 4 am after a show with Jose James, and which again features Attica Blues singer Midnight Roba on stunning vocals, feels like it’s beckoning a bright future over daintily dancing flute. And the album ends with ‘Make Way’, a glimmering, introspective wash of xylophone and guitar. “It’s hopeful,” says Marc. “We all need as much of that as we can get.” Make way for Ben Marc, indeed: he’s ready to smash that ceiling.