Lakecia Benjamin: Capturing the Soul and Spirituality of the Coltranes.
Rising star, saxophonist, and bandleader, Lakecia Benjamin, is set to release her third full-length album on March 27th, 2020, Pursuance: The Coltranes. The driven and highly talented musician set out to make a record that captured the musical excellence and spirituality of John and Alice Coltrane. For the album, Benjamin has assembled over 40 jazz all-stars, spanning three generations, that includes Ron Carter, Gary Bartz, Regina Carter, Dee Dee Bridgewater, Meshell Ndegeocello, Steve Wilson, Marc Cary, Keyon Harrold, Marcus Strickland, Brandee Younger and Jazzmeia Horn.
The thirteen track record highlights both John and his wife Alice Coltrane's body of work. The selection includes “Liberia”, “Prema”, “Central Park West”, “Walk With Me”, “Going Home”, “Syeeda’s Song Flute”, “Spiral”, “Om Shanti”, “Alabama”, “Acknowledgement”, “Pursuance”, “Turiya and Ramakrishna” and “Affinity.” From the opening track, "Liberia," it is evident that the album is filled with the soul and spirituality of the Coltranes.
Lakecia Benjamin is an extremely talented young artist who has the respect and insight from her elders as well as a fresh outlook on where the genre is going. The history and future of jazz seems to be alive and well in the hands of this exceptional
Bleu Bop had the chance to ask Lakecia about her inspirations, thoughts on the jazz genre, and of course what inspired her to make an album featuring the Coltranes' music.
BLEU BOP: Having your beginnings in latin dance music, what was it about jazz that ultimately caught your attention?
Lakecia Benjamin: I was raised in a predominately Latin neighborhood . The music I heard and the culture I was apart of wasn’t an option for me, it was everyday life. All of my friends were of Latin decent so it was like second nature and part of my early childhood. By the time I heard jazz I was a teenager and my awareness level and view on life was different. It’s a time when you start exploring who you are. One of the first things I noticed about jazz was how rich in soul and culture it was. The first Jazz artist I heard was Duke Ellington’s Big Band. I was intrigued to learn not only more about the music but the players and history behind it. The rhythmic feel … the harmonic complexity ... Everything about it I loved. It’s almost like as soon as I heard it I feel in love.
BB: You’ve had extensive musical training, graduating from Fiorello H. LaGuardia High School, eventually going to The New School. How significant would you say the formal music education was to your success? Do you think it’s possible to succeed within the jazz idiom today without it?
LB: I think times are constantly evolving and changing . You hear the elders talk about the music scene of the past, there were 10-15 jazz sessions going on a night! Not to mention how many jazz clubs there were at the time. When I was coming up, I would sneak into clubs around Harlem, especially the ones with artists I admired, hoping to just get closer to the music. I would introduce myself and actively seek out all the guidance I could get. Things have changed now though, there aren’t as many gigs, and elders aren’t as readily accessible. So the good thing about attending a university is that they hire some of the legends and you can go and play with them and your peers everyday. The one negative thing is that it does not replace learning the music from where it originated, which is the street. Jazz is bred in fire and you have to throw yourself into the lions den to really learn how to play. No school can give you that or teach you that.
Jazz is bred in fire and you have to throw yourself into the lions den to really learn how to play.
BB: Who do you believe had the biggest influence on your improvisational style?
LB: Jackie Mclean, Charles Mingus, John Coltrane, Kenny Garrett , Jonny Hodges, Maceo Parker and the Alto King, Charlie Parker.
BB: You have written, arranged, and lead horn sections for such artists as, Stevie Wonder, Alicia Keys, Macy Gray, and Anita Baker, to name a few. What have you learned from these experiences? Out of all these roles (composer, arranger, leader), which would you say is your favorite so far?
LB: From every experience you gain knowledge. Everything you do in life, each day you live, every job you do gets you closer to becoming the best version of yourself. From each experience I’ve learned to never stop growing and learning. Being versatile in numerous styles expands your mind and sense of harmony. I’m the kind of person that likes to learn it all. This way you have a wider pool of knowledge to create from.
BB: What made you decide for your third album release, Pursuance: The Coltranes, to pay homage to John and Alice Coltrane? Did you include any harpists on the album to replicate Alice’s sound?
LB: My initial plan was to pay homage to the different generations of jazz musicians (legends and the future legends) during their life time. Every day in the jazz community it seems like a beacon is passing on. I wanted to make a record that showcased the musicians that had directly played with the masters: John and Alice Coltrane, Miles Davis, Art Blakey etc ... I also wanted to showcase the generation that they raised and I looked up to: to the Regina Carter’s, the Greg Osby’s and then showcase the bandleaders of my generation that are actively trying to be innovative in jazz while still paying tribute to the tradition. After I established that, it became clear that the only artists that have surpassed Reggie Workman or a Ron Carter would be the Coltranes. To me, they are the highest level of excellence, musically and spiritually .
Brandee Younger played harp on 2 tracks on the album but not because I wanted to emulate anything. As far as I’m concerned, John and Alice have created the most perfect versions of these songs that will ever be made. My goal wasn’t to copy or to show my take on things. I hope to draw more people to the power of their music and the power of jazz. Each guest on the album is there because of what they have to offer.
It became clear that the only artists that have surpassed Reggie Workman or a Ron Carter would be the Coltranes. To me, they are the highest level of excellence, musically, and spiritually.
BB: For this album you have brought together so many talented heavy hitters, Ron Carter, Gary Bartz, Regina Carter, Dee Dee Bridgewater, Meshell Ndegeocello, Steve Wilson, Marc Cary, Keyon Harrold, Marcus Strickland, Brandee Younger and Jazzmeia Horn. How did you choose what songs to do and with who?
LB: I decided the songs based on the strengths of the guests. I wrote each arrangement with the guest in mind to showcase their forte. For example, Dee Dee is amazing at scatting, the energy she can achieve is remarkable so I thought of her immediately for "A Love Supreme". Regina Carter is phenomenal, not only is she one of the most harmonically advanced people I know but she is also incredibly soulful and bluesy. I wanted to showcase her ability to paint a picture and make you feel something in the bottom of your soul.
BB: You're touring now, what goes into planning the shows, how do you prepare for live performances?
LB: The live performance is the easy part. I just try to focus on the music and remember that it’s my job to convey a message. My goal is that no matter who’s at the show you will feel something. And hopefully at the end you walk away feeling better than when you came.
BB: Listening to the pre-released tune, “Liberia,” off the new album, the replication of John Coltrane’s style and attitude is spot on. Can you elaborate on how you went about preparing for this album? What sorts of research or exercises did you employ to be able to pay tribute to the Coltranes while still adding your own touch?
LB: The Coltranes are a family that every jazz musician at some point will come across and study. As a saxophonist, it’s easy to try and emulate John because his tone, technique, and soul are so embedded in the music. But at the end of the day you can only play who you are and that requires a deep sense of self and purpose. For this album, I spent a lot of time praying and fasting and trying to focus on the things the Coltranes focused on: God, the music, and healing people.
BB: Lastly, we always end by asking what is your favorite jazz album of all time?
LB: This has to be a trick question because I don’t think anyone can pick just one. The history is so vast. But since we are talking about the Coltranes, my favorite Alice Coltrane album is Ptah el Daoud.
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