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Lakecia Benjamin rises from the ashes with Phoenix

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    Posted: 06 Feb 2023 at 11:27pm

Lakecia Benjamin, 'Phoenix'

by Joshua Lee

Lakecia Benjamin
Photo by Elizabeth Leitzell

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The title of saxophonist and composer Lakecia Benjamin’s new album, Phoenix, couldn’t be more apt; quite literally rising from the ashes of trauma, her new album finds strength in her recovery. A musician from a young age, Benjamin grew up in New York City and initially studied the recorder at school before discovering her love of jazz while playing saxophone in high school. She’s remained in New York ever since, fostering a reputation amongst the rest of the city’s bustling jazz scene. While she recorded her debut album Retox in 2012, she became more focussed on recording music in the late 2010s with more regular studio releases beginning with 2018’s Rise Up and 2020’s Pursuance: The Coltranes which, as the latter’s title suggests, explored the music of John and Alice Coltrane.

The genesis of Phoenix came from a dark period in Benjamin’s life; driving home from a concert in late 2021 she was involved in a car accident which resulted in a broken jaw; already a traumatic experience for any person but particularly so for a horn player like herself. But in phoenix-like fashion, within just a few weeks she was back out on the road touring Pursuance, rising from what could have been a death sentence for her music career. It’s with the sound of emergency sirens that the first track ‘Amerikkan Skin’ opens the record, though the addition of sampled gunshots also naturally brings it into the context of wider struggles in the modern United States; the tune is completed by the words of political activist Angela Davis, one of a few non-musician features on the record, declaring “Revolutionary hope resides precisely among those women who have been abandoned by history.” The bulk of the track itself features an extended improvisation by Benjamin, before the latter half switches the chord progression up as she begins deftly trading solos with trumpeter Josh Evans.

Lakecia Benjamin

Phoenix also draws from the wider legacy of Black Americans, and includes features from musicians like pianist/vocalist Patrice Rushen, vocalist Dianne Reeves and fellow horn player Wayne Shorter, the latter of whom appears on one of the album’s already stranger cuts as he performs spoken word against futuristic sound effects. Benjamin gets creative with her sound palette; the title track ‘Phoenix’ opens with soaring vocals from Georgia Anne Muldrow over a suspenseful synth pad that wouldn’t be so out of place in a John Carpenter horror flick, while the string arrangements on ‘Mercy’ complement Dianne Reeves’ voice in a somewhat old-school ‘studio orchestra’ flavour, with Benjamin’s little sax licks between each verse a tasteful addition to the tune.

You’ll get no prizes for guessing who the latter-album track ‘Trane’ is inspired by, as Benjamin channels some of the vestigial energy from her previous project into a moody piece evocative of John’s more spiritual tendencies, providing another lush setting for Benjamin’s improvisatory playing. While she’s more than technically capable, you’ll seldom hear Benjamin blasting out sheets of notes within the space of a second (she can really screech when she wants to, though); her phrasing is conversational, not rambling.

Phoenix now marks Benjamin’s fourth album as bandleader, but sees the saxophonist at what is surely a peak; much like the preceding Pursuance, it features an intergenerational lineup of old and young musicians. ‘Peace Is a Haiku Song’ and ‘Blast’ feature the words and voice of American poet Sonia Sanchez spoken through a telephone line. While ‘Peace’ is a more minimal arrangement, the latter is more instrumentally full, with Sanchez’ crackling phone voice filtered through echoing effects, her rallying cry sounding like the ricocheting of a megaphone across a city – “calling all peace warriors” – while Phoenix does deal with some tough subjects, it is at its heart a positive record.

from www.prestomusic.com

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