Lakecia Benjamin - On 'Pursuance' and the Coltranes (Feature Interview)
Pursuance: The Coltranes is the latest project from the charismatic New York-based saxophonist Lakecia Benjamin. For the record, Lakecia surrounded herself with a collection of jazz masters and jazz nobility, such as Ron Carter, Gary Bartz and Dee Bridgewater (to name a few), and united them under the mystical music of Alice and John Coltrane.
Titans within jazz, Alice and John Coltrane have had a seismic impact on the music world. The pair’s lure on Lakecia from a young age, who has played with figures like Stevie Wonder to Gregory Porter, is clear.
“A friend of mine had played me an Alice Coltrane record, a long time ago… I was immediately taken and drawn to it.”
This curiosity would lead Lakecia to a deep exploration to find out who this figure was. As Alice as her starting point (and discovering that John was her husband), Lakecia went on, almost fanatically, to find out more the saxophonist’s music.
“I got all the albums I could get and put them in chronological order. So, then I started listening to them one CD at a time, and I spent a week or two with one CD and then kept moving. By the time I got to the end, it’s kind of like, a crazy experience – experiencing ten years of Coltrane – from post-Bebop until his freer period. It became almost like obsessive, seeing someone grow that way. At the time… I wasn’t even aware of what “Bebop” is, or “Swing” is, the genres and the periods.”
“So luckily when I heard it, it was the sound the vibes and the vibrations are what caught me at first. If I listened to it five years ago, I’d be able to tell you whether it was minor or modal, but all I had then was how it made me feel inside. So, this was a key thing of getting me to dig deeper into my musical education you know? To find a name for what I was hearing.”
“It really made me appreciate their music more. It made me research who they were, where they lived, I had to go find out who the artists were because I wasn’t tied into like, ‘oh this was jazz’. I had no idea, I thought this is just music.”
Talking to Lakecia, you realise that her passion for and dedication to the Coltranes was the starting point for Pursuance. Yet, it goes so much deeper than that – the record is also her way of expressing her own appreciation for the wider jazz community, the art form itself, but also a yearning to draw others to it.
“I thought of the idea in June … and I went to talk to Reggie Workman. He’d just won an NEA award… He started talking to me about how happy he was about this award, and I thought to myself ‘Wow this guy is 83, and he’s just getting an award for being the legend that he is.'”
“As we’re losing so many jazz legends, I wanted to pay tribute to them whilst they’re here. My ultimate goal in the album was, of course, for people to check out who Alice and John Coltrane were, [to draw them to] read and listen to their music. But also, individually, listen to Ron Carter’s music, listen to Dee Dee Bridgewater’s music, listen to all these people, and bring them closer into the jazz family.”
Making such an expansive piece of work is difficult to, which unites generations and styles in such a way, is an incredibly difficult thing to do. But she assured me, that the unifying element begins with jazz as an art form.
“I think in terms of like the history of music, the history of jazz, the history of black music, jazz is the roots of things. The spirituals, the blues, jazz, rhythm and blues, gospel, they evolved from each other, but their roots are always in the spirituals, blues and jazz.”
Within moments of talking to Lakecia, her strength, determination and vision are blindingly clear.
“For the album, I didn’t have anybody to plan, organise and budget. I came up with the idea, and I didn’t tell anybody because; one, I was scared if I could get this together; and two, I didn’t want anyone to put it on the internet or blab that I was working on this. So, I didn’t enlist help from anybody on this, I just showed up and told people this was going to happen.”
Clearly, to be able to succeed in a project like this, you need to be resilient. It's unquestionable that Lakecia is.
“I guess I’ve always been a resilient person, someone who aims for the highest, and if you hit it in the middle, you’re still better off than if you’d aimed for the bottom. But I think what I learnt from that, is that as much as I’ve been adventurous and always trying to seek my dreams, I should always go a little higher. Because if I can achieve all of that, with no team or anything, I wonder, ‘what can I do next?’”
“Put your money on yourself. Always bet on yourself.”
This sense of self-assurance and poise helps to explain how the saxophonist was able to accrue a star-studded line-up for the album, one which spanned generations.
“It feels amazing. During the process, there are so many different emotions you know? I started beginning from having no one. I just had a blackboard in my house and a list of people I was going to contact.”
“The best part of it, was when we got to the studio… that is full of all these people… and they’re hanging out because they’re seeing their friends and talking about these times when in 1965 they were doing this, and the 1970s they were doing this… It became this huge party.”
“I remember at one point in the session, just sitting back and watching everybody talk and laughing… and I just thought ‘Wow… Here’s Reggie Workman, Ron Carter, Gary Bartz. This is so amazing to just see them and they’re so excited and honoured to be playing with each other’. It was really special to me.”
What is also amazing to consider and appreciate with this project, is not just the calibre of the musicians Lakecia was able to congregate, but also the relationship which these musicians had with one another.
“All of the alto players on the CD, except for Greg Osby, have been my saxophone teachers. It was important to me, to show that even within the CD itself, there are generations of musicians which have developed from each other.”
“Regina Carter was telling about her experiences with Ron Carter helping her out and bringing her into the music. Each generation, no matter which age group you were in, someone had mentored you that was on the project…"
"They were all connected to Coltrane, but also connected to each other.”
Focussing on the Coltranes, it is impossible to avoid thinking about the spirituality which lay at the core of their music and what they stood for. Legendary saxophonist Gary Bartz, who epitomises the spiritual jazz movement and is featured on the record, recently told Lakecia that he’s taking the COVID-19 isolation period in his stride, claiming “I’m in heaven”...
“The great musicians, this is where they are. Their brains aren’t on Earth. They’re just so absorbed with the music. You can use this time to focus on your playing, so when you play with other people, you are at a different level.”
“[Gary] mentioned to me that he saw John Coltrane do a gig, and the cops came and shut the gig down at 4am, he said that John Coltrane and Elvin Jones went to the basement, to finish the rest of the song. Because it’s not about the gig or the money, but it’s because the song was not finished – so that’s where he is coming from”
Undoubtedly, this sense of spirituality is something which is wholly important for Lakecia, particularly with the COVID-19 outbreak.
“How the Coltranes lived their lives, is something I aspire to be… I’ve always felt that if you’re playing jazz, or whatever the music,"
"it’s to heal people and bring some kind of joy or comfort going through something.”
“I feel like right now it’s going on because the world’s slowly been entering a crisis. Now, it’s kind of like crashed.”
“I had a choice to pull the album...I thought to myself, ‘Isn’t the music supposed to be for a crisis?’ It’s weird to go backwards. So, I decided to let it go and see what happened…There’s nowhere you can go to avoid where humanity is right now. Hopefully, it brings us out stronger, but it’s definitely shown some weaknesses in every place’s particular system.”
Tolling over the impact of the COVID-19 outbreak which continues to adversely affect the creative industries, Lakecia pensively reflected on the way which the music community and fans have rallied round to support one another.
“As the months go by, and people’s incomes are getting lower and lower. Before, I used to be really against services like Spotify or Youtube… But it’s important to share artists’ work, because really what makes artists known is people talking about them and sharing their pages, videos and telling a friend about them. You don’t really get famous because someone puts you in JazzTimes. People find out because people are talking about it. So, I think that’s a way of helping. Share the music, share the message, spread the word."
“After this, we’ll all be on the same page in appreciating people…Once we all get on the same page and get passed this, I think the arts will really flourish because that’s a staple which has been implemented.”
“I really feel like the music community, is supporting each other… Everyone is sticking together to really make sure that when we come back, everyone in the whole community is together.”
Lakecia Benjamin's Pursuance: The Coltranes is out now via Ropeadope Records.
You can keep up-to-date with Lakecia here:
Featured guests on Pursuance include: Gary Bartz, Jazzemia Horn, Regina Carter, Brandee Younger, Marcus Strickland, Ron Carter, Keyon Harrold, Steve Wilson, Marcus Gilmore, Georgie Anne Muldrow, Meshell Ndegecello, Dee Dee Bridgewater, The Last Poets, Marc Cary, Greg Osby and Reggie Workman.