Because of the music’s sheer ebullience, it’s sometimes hard to comprehend the somber inspiration that fuels alto saxophonist Lakecia Benjamin’s long-awaited new album, Rise Up (Ropedope). Tunes like “Juicy,” which initially bounces to a bass line groove similar to The Time’s 1981 hit, “Cool”; the zesty “On The One,” which resembles a Maceo Parker jam; and the head-banging “Takeback” sound unabashedly festive. Those bubbly songs pretty much characterize the vibe of the entire disc. But its impetus was far from a party.
In March 2013, the year after the release of Benjamin’s album Retox (Motéma), she endured a tragedy when her younger sister, Jenee, died at age 22. “Losing her put me in a pretty dark place. It forced me to really find out who I was and what I wanted in life,” Benjamin explained.
The New York native found the strength to keep making music and create a new album. “I’m just a super energetic person, and I have different ways of expressing that,” Benjamin said.
Anyone who has seen Benjamin perform—either with her rugged Soul Squad or with Igmar Thomas’ Revive Big Band, Ulysses Owens Jr. & The New Century Big Band, Terri Lyne Carrington, Theo Croker or Gregory Porter—has experienced her cyclonic energy. Benjamin possesses a steely tone on saxophone with which she unleashes thrashing improvisations that sound like someone trying to convey enormous crucial information in a short amount of time.
Mark Ruffin, who worked with Benjamin when he produced singer Charenée Wade’s album Offering: The Music Of Gil Scott-Heron And Brian Jackson (Motéma), recently compared Benjamin’s saxophone playing to Johnny Griffin’s. “They called him the ‘Little Giant’ because of his huge sound. That’s Lakecia,” Ruffin said. “She may be of a slight build but she has an incredibly large, hot, in-your-face sound. She spits fire in every solo I’ve heard her do.”
As evidenced by her oeuvre, Benjamin’s musicality stretches beyond jazz. She’s also rocked the stage with hip-hop architects such as Pete Rock, DJ Premiere and Missy Elliott, as well as r&b icons Stevie Wonder and Alicia Keys.
Carrington praised Benjamin’s versatility: “Lakecia captures the essence of traditional jazz, blues and r&b, never forsaking the importance and essential characters of the genres, while at the same time embracing the evolution of them all—while speaking to what’s relevant today. Her sound is clear, urgent and soulful.”
Benjamin is also an educator who teaches in Jazz at Lincoln Center’s “Jazz for Young People” program and at Brooklyn’s KIPP AMP Middle School. A poignant exchange with the one of the students at the latter program informed the Afrobeat-driven “Little Children.” One of her aspiring music students was concerned about walking home from school with a saxophone case; he was afraid that police officers might mistake it for a gun. Benjamin soon learned that many of the music students shared the same fear. “So, I wanted to have a message to all these kids out there worried about getting shot and dying. Surviving is not thriving,” Benjamin said. “I thought that there needs to be a message to them on how to be positive and be themselves within this climate.”
For all the positivity in spite of circumstances that course through Rise Up, some jazz purists will probably scoff as they did with Retox about how Benjamin’s electrifying saxophone improvisations often take the backseat to vocalists. “Sometimes the message and the impact isn’t about me playing a lot of saxophone,” she explained. “Don’t get me wrong; I love to solo. But I got to do what I feel is best for the music.” DB