Lakecia Benjamin


Lakecia Benjamin photo by Elizabeth Lietzell

Thursday, June 1, 7:30pm
Langston Hughes Performing Arts Institute
104 17th Ave S


The title of Lakecia Benjamin’s latest album Phoenix is directed both at herself and anyone who might care to listen to her message. On a personal level, it is a name meant to evoke the trials that the saxophonist overcame prior to recording the LP. Nearly two years ago, the car Benjamin was driving went off the road — an accident that resulted in multiple broken bones including her jaw. Her recovery was long and arduous, even as she maintained a busy touring schedule.

Coming out of the experience left Benjamin with a renewed sense of purpose that she poured into Phoenix. Moving even farther afield from the funk-jazz sound of her 2012 debut Retox, the music slides from sassy post-bop into more stately mood pieces like the moving “Rebirth” and “Trane,” a tribute to one of her key influences as a player and songwriter. And winding through it all are ribbons of experimentalism, including spoken word appearances from iconic Black figures like Angela Davis, the late Wayne Shorter, and poet Sonia Sanchez.

But again, it wasn’t just her own figurative rebirth that occupied her mind as she put the material for Phoenix together. Around Phoenix’s release in January, Benjamin told the New York Times, “I feel like a phoenix. But I also feel we’re all out here the same way. We all have to heal from the pandemic. We all have to rise from the ashes.”

In her mind, that extends far beyond being able to move freely without fear of sharing an infection. The first track on Phoenix, “Amerikkan Skin,” is a nine-minute suite that opens with the sound of sirens and evolves into a modal piece through which Davis’s voice intones, “Revolutionary hope resides precisely among those women who have been abandoned by history.” Benjamin responds with a solo that sounds like the wailing of a broken spirit and a triumphal shout from the mountaintop.

The album also feels like a major leveling up for an artist who was already in rarefied air. The native New Yorker has been studying and playing the alto sax since elementary school, with both rigorous training in the classrooms of the Harlem School of the Arts and The New School, and what loose lessons she could grab from peers. Benjamin soon built a solid reputation among the music community in New York, working first with Clark Terry and snagging plum gigs touring with Alicia Keys and sitting in with The Roots and Anita Baker. 

In the years since Retox, her recorded work has exponentially grown in depth and scope. Another funk-centric album Rise Up gave way to 2020’s Pursuance : The Coltranes, an expansive tribute album to saxophonist John and his pianist/harpist wife Alice that welcomed contributions from jazz elders like Gary Bartz, Reggie Workman, Ron Carter, and Dee Dee Bridgewater. The album earned Benjamin a wave of accolades with All About Jazz dubbing it “an amazing and ambitious tribute.”

As Phoenix bears out, the praise for Pursuance didn’t encourage her to play it safe. Benjamin is doing as all great young jazz artists should, reaching back into the past to call on the support of her forebears and using their lessons to push the art form even further ahead. Tickets available at earshot.org.


Posted on

April 30, 2023