Lakecia Benjamin Pursues a Spiritual Quest

  I  
Image

Lakecia Benjamin’s latest album features compositions by Alice Coltrane and John Coltrane.

(Photo: Elizabeth Leitzell)

Intrigued, Benjamin dug into John Coltrane’s discography, starting with his earliest work, through to his last. “By the end, I had a full picture of him,” she said. “I’m glad I came at it that way, versus somebody playing ‘Giant Steps’ for me, which maybe I wouldn’t have understood.”

Workman—a New School faculty member who has known Benjamin since her days as a student there—is the rare living musician who has worked with both of the Coltranes, first in John’s 1960s quartet and then on Alice’s 1978 concert album, Transfiguration. “I thought he could give me some insight since he played with both of them,” Benjamin said about the bassist, who contributed to her latest work.

Around the time Benjamin got in touch with Workman, the National Endowment of the Arts announced that he would be a recipient of a 2020 Jazz Masters Fellowship. This development set Benjamin to pondering the role that the Coltrane-era musicians had played in her own growth as an artist.

“I was glad that Reggie got some credit, not just the NEA Award, but also tenure at The New School,” Benjamin said. “And I was thinking that people of his generation don’t get enough props, especially from my generation. We say that we honor these guys, but we don’t make a public statement about it in our work.

“So, I thought, ‘There are a few guys alive who played with the Coltranes. Maybe [the album] would be a good way for us to pay tribute to all the work they’ve done. To let them know that it’s meant a lot to my generation.’”

Besides Workman, Benjamin had her eye on bassist Ron Carter, who’d played on Alice Coltrane’s third album, Ptah, The El Daoud, and saxophonist Gary Bartz, who, like Carter, had worked closely with McCoy Tyner, a longtime pianist with the John Coltrane Quartet. She wasn’t sure either would agree to record with her, but she reached out anyway.

Carter and Bartz agreed, with Workman signing on as co-producer.

“Then the project started spiraling,” Benjamin said. She started thinking about all of the other great musicians whose work had influenced her. Didn’t they deserve recognition, too? With this question in mind, she thought to invite some of her mentors, like saxophonist Steve Wilson and singer Dee Dee Bridgewater, and fellow rising stars, like trumpeter Keyon Harrold and drummer Marcus Gilmore. Then she started making phone calls to see who would be available for two all-day recording sessions.

The two marathon recording sessions were “like a reunion,” recalled harpist Brandee Younger. “Everyone was there, and it was really special.” Long a devotee of Alice Coltrane, who pioneered the jazz harp, Younger first met Benjamin about 11 years ago, around the time they both worked for drummer Rashied Ali (1933–2009), another musician who played with both of the Coltranes.

“Lakecia was absolutely thoughtful in her instrumentation and the selection of the players,” Younger said. But what stuck out the most, she added, was that “Lakecia always brings an element of soul to whatever she’s playing. When we recorded ‘Going Home,’ it was a beautiful, spiritual moment in the studio because of the soul she brought to it.”

Alice released the original “Going Home” on her 1973 album, Lord Of Lords (which was reissued in 2018 by the Superior Viaduct label). By this stage in her music career, Alice had begun experimenting with soothing, ethereal orchestrations, writing them herself, hinting at her growing interest in devotional music. In 1976, she established the Vedantic Center in California, which later relocated to a site near Malibu and was renamed the Sai Anantam Ashram. (The site later was destroyed in the 2018 Woolsey Fire.)

Alice’s final studio album, Translinear Light, came in 2004 and featured contributions from her sons Ravi and Oran, both saxophonists. In Benjamin’s arrangement of the traditional gospel blues “Walk With Me,” more than a step removed from the Translinear version, violinist Carter’s free sections act as bookends for the bandleader’s solo work, the mournful stirring of the strings contrasting with jubilant saxophone tones.

Alice didn’t release any new music after this album, though several archival recordings would surface after her death. In 2017, the Luaka Bop label released the compilation World Spiritual Classics I: The Ecstatic Music Of Alice Coltrane Turiyasangitananda. Among its tracks is “Om Shanti”—a call for peace—originally released on cassette for the ashram’s followers. Benjamin’s take on the composition, a mash-up of spoken word, sung chants and soaring saxophone, featuring vocals from Georgia Anne Muldrow and bass from Meshell Ndegecello, retains all of Alice’s fervor, even as it speaks of modern pain.

Benjamin’s use of spoken word—just one of her stylistic allusions to hip-hop—on tunes like “Om Shanti” highlights both her comfort and her expertise with idioms outside of jazz. For instance, on “Acknowledgement,” from John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme, Benjamin opens with a poetic riff by Abiodun Oyewole, founder of the iconoclastic spoken-word group The Last Poets: “John Coltrane was a vessel/ Taking us to the house of God/ He spoke to God in the language God knew/ In the language of sound.” With this intro she uses sound in a way that Coltrane didn’t—but there’s nothing amiss here. Imitation is not her way of paying respect.

According to Benjamin, the decision to incorporate spoken word was an essential artistic choice. “Words can press through sometimes when the music can’t,” she observed.

Page 2 of 3   < 1 2 3 > 


  • DB23_Jeff_Beck_Ross_Halfin.jpg

    “In the pantheons of guitar players, Jeff was the chosen one,” said Steve Vai of the late Jeff Beck.

    Remembering Jeff Beck

    One of an iconic triumvirate of ’60s rock guitar gods, along with Jimi Hendrix and Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck set the…

  • Albert_Ayler_Holy_Ghost.jpg

    Author Richard Koloda spent two decades researching this addition to the legend of free-jazz saxophonist Albert Ayler.

  • Basquiat.jpg

    New York City shaped the motifs that run throughout Basquiat’s work. Shown here are his pieces King Zulu (left) and Dog Bite/Ax to Grind.

    The Musical World of Basquiat

    Jean-Michel Basquiat’s bold and challenging images have gone from their origins in the streets of New York to…

  • 1_Gretchen_Valade.jpg

    Gretchen Valade


On Sale Now
February 2023
Lakecia Benjamin
Look Inside
Subscribe
Print | Digital | iPad