fb-pixelWith ‘Phoenix,’ jazz saxophonist Lakecia Benjamin soars to a new realm - The Boston Globe Skip to main content

With ‘Phoenix,’ jazz saxophonist Lakecia Benjamin soars to a new realm

Lakecia Benjamin comes to the Berklee Performance Center on Friday.Elizabeth Leitzell

Lakecia Benjamin has been enjoying a truly remarkable 2023.

It kicked off with the January release of “Phoenix,” a stellar album focused on her own compositions and featuring guest appearances by a variety of elders: Patrice Rushen on piano, Dianne Reeves singing Benjamin’s hopeful lyrics on “Mercy,” and Wayne Shorter, Sonia Sanchez, and Angela Davis each contributing spoken words. Terri Lyne Carrington shares producer credit with Benjamin.

By mid-summer, Benjamin was voted third best alto saxophonist in DownBeat’s annual critics poll. In October, the month she turned 41, Benjamin was named the 2023 Library of Congress Jazz Scholar, which led to a Nov. 2 performance at the library and an opportunity to delve into its archives.

Advertisement



Then on Nov. 10 came the news that “Phoenix” had earned Benjamin three Grammy nominations, the first of her career, in the categories of best instrumental composition, best jazz performance, and best jazz instrumental album.

Fresh from those triumphs, Benjamin will perform a Celebrity Series of Boston concert Friday at Berklee Performance Center, backed by Zaccai Curtis on piano and keyboards, Elias Bailey on bass, and EJ Strickland on drums. The set will emphasize material from the new album, including songs featuring those prominent guest artists.

“We’re primarily going to play ‘Phoenix’ there,” Benjamin says in a phone interview from the road earlier this month. “We do throw in some Coltrane, just because why the hell not?” She laughs. “And when we play those songs, I just perform their parts. And sometimes I do my own spin on things. I do a lot of rapping sometimes. So it depends. We absolutely do not take the guest portion away.”

The Coltrane reference is clear to those who have begun following Benjamin’s career. She has a new piece titled “Trane” on “Phoenix,” and Benjamin’s previous album, “Pursuance: The Coltranes,” was devoted to her arrangements of works composed by John or Alice Coltrane.

Advertisement



“Pursuance” was released in March 2020, coinciding with the beginning of the COVID lockdown. Benjamin had finally begun touring music from it when, in September 2021, she was in a near-fatal auto accident. While recovering, she began composing the music on “Phoenix,” named for the mythological bird that dies and is reborn from its ashes.

The first piece she wrote was the album’s opening track, “Amerikkan Skin,” the one that netted her the best instrumental composition Grammy nomination. It opens with the sound of an ambulance siren — “When I had my accident, that’s the first thing I heard” — and soon Angela Davis is heard extolling the revolutionary contributions of women.

“I thought of the cross-reference between, at the time, how many people were waking up to ambulances with the COVID thing, with the riot stuff going on all over the country,” she explains. “I wanted to start the album in a familiar place for the listeners.

“And Angela comes in because I wanted somebody that, when you hear the voice, you know who it is. And it’s powerful to introduce the women — that this project is going to have some pretty prominent women.”

Benjamin reached out to Davis herself, despite Carrington’s existing ties to the iconic activist.

“I got all the guests myself and asked Terri to stay out of it,” she explains, “so that I could start to build a relationship with these people outside of favors. I’m looking, when I have a guest, to build a relationship, kind of a mentorship.”

Advertisement



Mentors have long been crucial to Benjamin’s approach to music and her career. Reggie Workman and Gary Bartz were among her teachers at the New School, and both appeared on “Pursuance.” She had early gigs with Clark Terry and Rashied Ali, and later backed a range of artists including Christian McBride, Gregory Porter, Alicia Keys, Missy Elliott, and Stevie Wonder.

“I do things because I want to grow in that area,” she explains. “Watching Gregory Porter deal with a 10,000-people audience, watching Clark Terry deal with 1,000 people, and watching Stevie Wonder deal with 100,000 people. As a bandleader, to see ‘How are they controlling this? How are their songs being taken in?’ ”

The day before this interview, Benjamin had posted on social media that she would be interviewing Sonny Rollins for a statement on jazz in 2023 that she is preparing for the Library of Congress and which will ultimately be shared with the public.

“It’s not mandatory that I spoke to Sonny Rollins for that,” she clarifies. “That’s just the nature of my personality.”

Benjamin rattles off some archives she had already viewed at the library: Max Roach’s, Nina Simone’s, Hazel Scott’s, Miles Davis’s. “I saw some things in the library, and Sonny came up often,” she says. “So I wanted to talk to him.”

Sometimes influences involve other art forms, like the haiku Sanchez is heard reciting on two “Phoenix” tracks. Or “Basquiat,” the track that got Benjamin nominated for best jazz performance.

Advertisement



The late artist Jean-Michel Basquiat has previously been paid tribute on recordings by Jason Moran and Jon Batiste.

“I think in the music community at least — forget musicians, artists altogether — he garners our respect, [as] someone who achieved a high level but didn’t get to finish it off,” Benjamin explains. “Someone that, the things that he was wearing and saying and doing, we’re doing right now. So way ahead of his time.”

Benjamin’s own fashion sense reflects her ambition.

“Clark Terry told me, ‘They see you before they hear you.’ That’s the first thing I was taught, by Dee Dee Bridgewater, people like that,” Benjamin recalls. “A lot of the sidemen in bands are spending their lives not trying to be seen. When I look at a Theo Croker, or when I look at a Christian Scott, when I look at Miles Davis — I look at those people, they’ve spent their whole lives trying to be seen.”

For the Grammy-nominated best jazz instrumental album’s title track, Benjamin brought in the lone special guest of her own generation, Georgia Anne Muldrow, to contribute wordless vocals and synthesizer. The two are longtime friends who have recorded previously on each other’s albums.

“After such a devastating accident, ‘Phoenix,’ to me, was kind of like dying,” says Benjamin. “Because I wasn’t sure I would live. I wasn’t sure if I’d ever play again, once I found out that I was gonna live. And I wanted someone that moves beyond the bounds of having to have lyrics — they can just express a pure emotion. I can say, ‘Let’s just go where we need to go.’ ”

Advertisement



Bill Beuttler can be reached at bill@billbeuttler.com.

LAKECIA BENJAMIN

Presented by Celebrity Series of Boston. At Berklee Performance Center. Dec. 1 at 8 p.m. $29-$75. www.celebrityseries.org