Apr 11, 2023 10:47 AM
Brad Mehldau Tells His Story
At the tail end of 2022, Brad Mehldau took advantage of a New York sojourn to play piano with old friends at Smalls…
When DownBeat caught up with Lakecia Benjamin in November via Zoom, the saxophonist and composer was clad in a cherry red sweatshirt, wearing angular, postmodern chrome eyeglasses. Her shirt was emblazoned in black with “Anyone who can’t dance to John Coltrane can’t dance,” a quote attributed (on the garment) to Jean-Michel Basquiat. The shirt was a birthday gift from a friend.
Right now I’m into artistic expression, all kinds, visual and every way,” she divulged, expressing the inkling to “make an impact with what you wear, what you say, what you do, how you dance, what you’re thinking.” The shirt was exceptionally fitting, bearing in mind that two tracks on her latest album, Phoenix, are titled “Basquiat” and “Coltrane.” Her connection to Alice and John Coltrane inspired her much heralded work on her previous album, 2020’s Pursuance: The Coltranes (Ropeadope), as well as a 2018 tribute to John Coltrane at Jazz at Lincoln Center.
Despite the accolades doled on Pursuance, Phoenix, on Whirlwind Recordings, is the album in her catalogue that Benjamin is most excited about. “I’ve been spending so much time with the Coltranes and doing their music: not just protecting their legacy, but honoring it. It feels good to find a way to move on, still honoring legacy, but then to actually make my own kind of claim to it,” she said.
Her first album was “years ago,” she continued. Because this album was created with a goal of confirming Lakecia’s composing prowess, the tracks on Phoenix consist of largely original material (with the exception of “Peace Is A Haiku Song” by Sonia Sanchez and a cover of Patrice Rushen’s “Jubilation”). In the case of “Haiku,” which is built around a recitation of Sanchez’s poem of the same name (itself a part of a larger collaboration between Sanchez and the City of Philadelphia’s Mural Arts Program), Benjamin made sure Sanchez received appropriate credit for the track. “I didn’t want to get in the way of the elders getting their money,” she explained.
The chiefly original nature of Phoenix sits in contrast with Pursuance, which was an Alice and John Coltrane composition-based project. And even though Phoenix contains no Coltrane-penned music, Benjamin said the recording is still indebted to her transcendental experiences with the power of their music.
In September 2021, Benjamin was returning from a Tri-C Jazz Festival performance in Cleveland when a tragic date with fate intervened. “I had an accident where I fractured my collarbone. I fractured my jaw, my scapula broke. I basically almost died in this car. And this was the time where I had just started getting Pursuance back on the road.”
“The first show I did after that accident was the Pittsburgh Jazz Fest [less than two weeks later]. And I actually have videos of that. I was playing with my jaw broken, and I just had to kind of bite down. Luckily, when I play, I really feel like I owe the ’Tranes a lot. That music in itself pushed me.”
Mere weeks after the accident, she embarked on a grueling month-long European tour. She credits “the power of the Coltranes’ music” for sustaining her, “and God, of course.”
“It wasn’t until I came back that I spent two months going through the physical therapy. I had to regain the movement of my right arm and really get my jaw together. The excruciating pain that I was in forced me to leave my body. I had to really be like, ‘I cannot be in my body and do this show and interact with my audience — see what they need, what they’re doing — if I’m constantly focused on [the fact that] I can barely close my mouth.’
“It made me focus … almost like a meditation, to sit into that feeling of ‘What is it?’ ‘What are you trying to communicate?’ And constantly staying in that vibe.”
Those meditations helped guide the process of naming the new album. “I don’t do projects that don’t have a story or motivation. That’s partially why I picked [the album title] Phoenix. I said, ‘What is it like for me … a whole country … a whole world to pick themselves up from the ashes and try to recreate something?
“Phoenix, that’s the most beautiful thing ever: to spontaneously combust into flames and come back. I really thought of the struggles I’ve had in my own life, even trying to get to a step where I can have an interview like this, or just have something of recognition. This album really signified that for me.”
For the native New Yorker, scaffolded onto that transformative, character-defining experience was preceded by the lockdown — all of it in the midst of a global pandemic and a subsequent American civil rights uprising. cThe opening track, “Amerikkan Skin,” hits listeners with the bone-chilling sounds of gunshots and sirens interplayed with a recording of Angela Davis’ 2019 speech “Revolution Today.”
“I wanted the listener to get into the mindset that I started in,” Benjamin explained. “When the pandemic started, I was fresh on Pursuance. That’s what my focus was, and we were engulfed in that. But the writing for this album took place during that lockdown. And the month I started [composing for Phoenix], that’s what I was hearing outside of my house. I was hearing sirens. I was seeing on the news, people getting shot. I was experiencing a violent virus in a violent world.”
The sounds, therefore, are intentionally immersive: “I wanted the album to feel like kind of an audio book,” she said, “and to recreate sonically what I was feeling each month and what was happening.”
For example, on “Mercy,” a track with a rolling drum line reminiscent of Ahmad Jamal’s 1958 classic rendition of “Poinciana” — and featuring vocals by Dianne Reeves — the lyrics plead gently that “it’s time to turn the page and start anew with your mind and soul.”
Benjamin explained that her goal with “Mercy” was “to spread more awareness that we’re all humans. I feel we’re so disconnected. We’re really focusing on the different aspects ourselves and gender and race and religion and not focusing on the things that are the same and the things that make us one. We had this virus affecting all of us, didn’t matter any type of association you had.” Calling for all of us to exhibit more “grace” she added, “We need to learn how to lead with love.”
And while “Coltrane” and “Basquiat” are homages to artists who have departed to another plane, other tracks were created with the intention of uplifting living creators she admires — from Benjamin’s close friend Georgia Anne Muldrow to elders such as Davis and Reeves.
Like her work with the Coltranes, the inclusion of these artists also offered an opportunity for Benjamin to connect with the legacy of older artists she respects, including Wayne Shorter, who contributes a few sage words of advice on “Supernova.” “All of these artists have a deep place in my heart,” she noted, adding that her intention was to leave some type of legacy as well.
“I’m trying to work with the elders while they are here and get what they have to offer and their blessing on how to proceed. I wanted to emphasize people who, along my journey, have really spoken to me and showed me what the world could be like.” This connection to older generations of musicians, in Benjamin’s estimation, is an important hallmark of jazz. “When I started up, I was young going into the club, sneaking in, trying to get on a stage with Rashied Ali, trying to get on a stage with Clark [Terry]. All they can say is no. So it’s better to get a ‘no,’ and then ask again later, than to not try to have someone of that greatness for what she’s done.”
Benjamin’s sentiments mirror those expressed by iconic musician/composers Patrice Rushen and Terri Lyne Carrington, who each contribute to Phoenix. Carrington produced the effort, and Rushen played piano on “Jubilation,” a cover of her original composition. “Jubilation” was first included on Rushen’s 1975 sophomore effort, Before The Dawn, which was recorded when the pianist was just 20 years old.
According to Rushen, the song was composed in reverence to an artist who is one of her heroes, making the track’s inclusion a true “full-circle moment.”
“I also play flute,” the Grammy-winning multi-instrumentalist told DownBeat via telephone, “and I thought Hubert Laws was one of the best. I wanted to dedicate something in service to [Laws, who solos on the original recording].” She added that “reaching back” to older masters is something that isn’t “as present in today’s music. When I was starting out, it wasn’t unusual [for a young artist] to hope to get to the point where [they] could play alongside [their] heroes.”
Rushen plays piano on Benjamin’s rendition, and cited that she decided she wanted to be involved with the project when, after a few conversations with the younger artist, it was evident that Benjamin had “serious” intentions. A storied educator, Rushen asserted the importance of building and maintaining these intergenerational bridges, and praised Benjamin’s understanding of the fact that “we are all perpetual students of this music.”
Citing the inclusion of “progressive, radical women like Sonia Sanchez” on Phoenix, Carrington saluted Benjamin’s instinct to include these artists.
“It’s an interesting balance to me how you can honor the past and acknowledge it and its presence in your own artistry, and in your own life as you’re trying to push boundaries and move things forward,” Carrington said. “That’s the way it should be.”
Carrington added that her role on the project also falls under the umbrella of intergenerational collaboration. And while Benjamin had played in Carrington’s band as far back as 2015, more recently Carrington recognized a change in Benjamin’s perspective. “When she came through this time, it was almost like she had a better understanding of my history and the things I’ve done,” Carrington said. “People that are of a younger generation, they may kind of know who I am, but … I’m not really a part of their scene. When she came back, I felt like she really understood more of my history and contributions, and it felt extremely genuine.”
Benjamin shared that she sees Carrington as “someone who has excelled for a long time at her craft from a very young age and really is open to any genre, any possibility.
“And, in my opinion, [Carrington is] just now getting some of the flowers she should be getting. A lot of this project, I had the music together. I had everything I wanted to do together, but Terri really forced me to dig deeper and to find a way to make myself better. And I don’t think I could have done that without her.”
For Benjamin, a crucial objective of Phoenix was to use her platform to uplift the legacies of not just her elders, but also those of women creators in general. “I wanted to announce how I was feeling about the world and announce the women of the project. ... Most of my guests are female.”
Though the effort was noble, the process was not without snags.
After hitting scheduling roadblocks while working with Davis to record the spoken word passage for “Amerikkan Skin,” the saxophonist found a recording of a speech Davis had given in 2017 at the Centre de Cultura Contemporània de Barcelona called “Revolution Today.”
In that speech, Davis proclaimed, “Revolutionary hope resides precisely among those women who have been abandoned by history and are now standing up and making their demands heard.”
After identifying appropriate passages, Benjamin asked the academic, “Are you OK with this being your message? Even though ‘Amerikkan Skin’ has multiple layers of meaning, one layer is the convenient blindness to some things happening to women across the world.”
Carrington sees that. A long-standing artist-as-advocate, she understands the need to uplift the legacies of women in jazz. In addition to her ongoing work in the performance and production space, and work as the founder and artistic director of the Berklee Institute of Jazz and Gender Justice, Carrington recently embarked on the New Standards project, a multi-pronged initiative encompassing an exhibition, a fresh compilation of 101 lead sheets by women composers and a Grammy-nominated album drawing from the compositions in the aforementioned compilation.
Citing a previous conversation with Benjamin, Carrington recognized that in the time that had elapsed between their interactions, the saxophonist had experienced “a bit of an awakening to this gender issue,” an awakening she’s witnessed many times before, even within herself.
According to Carrington, historically, successful women in jazz “patterned ourselves after our male colleagues and male mentors. So I think most of us shied away from really celebrating that part of us, hiring other women, all that, because we didn’t want to be outcasts, or we didn’t want to be siloed off to the side.”
Citing her “New Standards” multimedia installation mounted at the Carr Center in Detroit — which serves to highlight and uplift the contributions of women in jazz — Carrington acknowledged that “people who were there, [like] Jazzmeia Horn, said, ‘I didn’t know I needed this.’ We have to not only celebrate and lift them up and understand their contributions historically, but we also have to point to the issues and the systemic sexism that has permeated the music for so long.”
It’s a message Benjamin has taken to heart. She said that another goal of Phoenix is to inspire the next generation of jazz creators, particularly young women, perhaps reaching forward.
“This is what I’m here to do until I’m not,” she explained. “I’m trying to leave whatever kind of imprint I can on society and leave my little stamp so maybe someone younger than me sees it. Patrice and [the other elders] see me doing something. They see me reaching for something and trying to break boundaries and molds. Maybe there is some 13-year-old out there, some 16-year-old out there who doesn’t know which direction to go.
“They don’t know what to do. And I just want people to realize that it’s OK to follow your dreams and see what happens.”
And if Benjamin’s story is any indication, sometimes following that path means stepping out on faith and transcending proverbial ashes. DB
Apr 11, 2023 10:47 AM
At the tail end of 2022, Brad Mehldau took advantage of a New York sojourn to play piano with old friends at Smalls…
Apr 18, 2023 9:44 AM
Pianist-composer Ahmad Jamal passed away April 16 in his home in Ashley Falls, Massachusetts, after battling prostate…
May 9, 2023 12:02 PM
Sadly, the formative giants of jazz are passing the torch and joining the ancestors. But such cliché and dwelling on…
May 16, 2023 3:15 PM
As a piano-playing prodigy, Philadelphia native Eric Reed performed gospel music in his father’s church at age 5. By…
May 30, 2023 1:06 PM
At 76, soprano and tenor saxophonist Dave Liebman — an alumnus of bands led by Miles Davis and Elvin Jones, leader of…