Lakecia Benjamin is a study in concentration. As she stands on a crowded stage, bobbing her head to the sounds of fellow saxophonist James Carter, she knows she’ll be called on momentarily to take her turn at the microphone. It’s an up-tempo blues, and Carter is a tough act to follow. With a robust tone and a flair for the dramatic, he attacks his instrument with deep feeling, and utilizes his impressive command of the horn’s wide range, squealing and honking, all the while combining a highly aggressive, nearly freeform style with a full awareness of the instrument’s storied past – he could easily intimidate even the most seasoned of professional jazz virtuosi. The other heavyweights who await their turn to play include the indomitable (and still underrated) Bill Saxton, brilliant newcomer Grace Kelly and the always-exciting trumpeter Steven Bernstein.
Ms. Benjamin is in good company tonight.
Given her relative youth (she’s still in her 20s), in a field dominated by male instrumentalists, Benjamin may be the only person not surprised by her recent, rapid climb to the stratosphere. Whether she’s playing straight ahead in a local jam session, sitting in with Stevie Wonder at Barack Obama’s presidential inaugural ball, backing up vocalists like Alicia Keys and Macy Gray, or music directing and playing in hip hop-funk-based units (for which she often does the lion’s share of the writing), her unflappable nature is always on display. She seems to have been born, quite simply, to take charge.
On another day, more recently, I catch up with her between rehearsals. We talk on the phone, and even though she has barely enough time to complete the interview, she remains calm and gracious throughout.
“No matter what the genre,” says Benjamin, “and despite my love of soul and funk, I’ve always been more inclined towards jazz of the older, earlier periods. From hard rock on down. I guess that’s early. Early to me anyway. I like the blues, gospel; the older Mahalia stuff. The heavy, and the bluesy.”
The heavy and the bluesy are apt adjectives for her genre-mixing approach. Although she prefers the higher-toned alto (she plays all the saxes, clarinet, flute and piano), Benjamin has a warm, earthy sound that hearkens back to the lyricism of David Sanborn at his mid-1970s best, paired with the soulfulness of Cannonball Adderley and the rhythmic punch of Maceo Parker.
Her New York roots have undoubtedly helped her to find her place, and have lent her the groove with which she seems to approach almost everything she undertakes.
“I grew up in Washington Heights,” she recalls, “and my first upbringing was a lot of merengue and salsa. I was playing in those bands, and learning a lot of what they call jaleo for saxophone.”
(Jaleo, a Spanish word of Hebrew origin, means to clap or yell out words such as “olé!”, or “eso!” to encourage dancers during a performance. It can also refer to a certain style of dancing.)
“Merengue is a heavy saxophone music,” says Benjamin, “It’s all about the saxophone; even on the bass stops, the saxes are still going. So I was forced to play a lot when I was on those gigs.”
When she was in elementary school, Benjamin picked up the recorder. By the time she was 12, she had moved up to sax. Back then, she says, she knew nothing about how to play jazz.
That was to change at LaGuardia High School, an institution responsible for starting the careers of many top-notch jazz artists, including Don Byron, Steve Jordan, Carlos Henriques, Marcus Miller and Jimmy Owens. Director Bob Stewart saw something in the skinny 14-year-old with the warm tone on alto and the predilection for Latin music.
“When I auditioned for La Guardia,” she recalls, “Mr. Stewart told me that he liked me and he was going to accept me. He thought I could read well, and that I was talented. Then I explained to him I had never played any jazz.”
Stewart asked her if she thought she could learn. “I said, ‘I can learn anything. If I’ve got to read it, that’s fine. But in terms of the style, I’m not sure.’”
Stewart gave Benjamin some listening recommendations, and her mother bought her some CDs for Christmas.
“She got me Duke Ellington, Dizzy Gillespie and Cannonball Adderley’s ‘Mercy, Mercy, Mercy.’ I also remember I got a Kenny Garrett songbook, I got a Charlie Parker compilation, and then I got some weird Sonny Rollins bootleg thing. That was my introduction to the music.”
After LaGuardia, Benjamin found herself at Rutgers University’s Mason Gross School of the Arts, and she began playing out with various ensembles. Her writing skills, which she’d developed early on, quickly became an asset.
“I was in college, and I was having a kind of mid-life crisis, like in a teenager’s mind, you know?” she recalls. “I was in this practice room with one of my friends who was a singer, and I was playing the piano, and she went to the bathroom – for a very long time. I was just playing around. When she came back, I said, ‘I think I wrote a song.’ It was just some chord changes. She was already composing at the time. She encouraged me to write a melody to it, and slowly but surely the writing started happening.”
Nowadays, among other engagements, Benjamin often acts as musical director for the comedian/bandleader Craig Robinson (of “The Office”) and his group the Nasty Delicious. (In fact, it was a VH1 Hip Hop Honors program with Robinson that initially brought Benjamin into the union.) She’s also called on to write orchestrations for television shows and features (“all union work,” she says proudly). A fall tour with guitarist James Blood Ulmer is in the works.
“In my circle, I’ve always been the go- to person in terms of arrangements,” says Benjamin, “unless there’s another band-leaderish somebody in the horn section. But I’ve never had the desire, honestly, to have my own band. I know I have leadership qualities, and over the years, as I’ve been playing and traveling, people have looked to me for that. Essentially, even if you’re a subleader or music director, you’re still under the whim of the bandleader, but I’m comfortable with that role right now.”
“Right now” is the culmination of a lot of hard work and deep focus. After Rutgers, she went for another degree at the New School and studied with the cream of New York City musicians, including saxophonists Gary Bartz, Steve Wilson, Jimmy Greene and Bruce Williams.
While still in school, she began playing in the Clark Terry big band.
“A lot of doors opened up while I was at the New School,” she recalls. “No one person got me that gig with Clark Terry, but I learned how to network while I was a student there, and I was able to meet him. A little later I started playing with other big bands, like the Duke Ellington Orchestra and the Count Basie Band. I started playing with musicians like Joanne Brackeen and Rashied Ali. It was like a domino effect.”
Lakecia’s love of composing is now equal to her love for the saxophone (“I don’t think I could to do one without the other,” she says) and has led to her work in film and TV. Connections in Hollywood and New York opened doors in Washington, D.C., and in 2008 she performed at one of the many presidential inaugural balls, where she was spontaneously asked to sit in with Stevie Wonder.
“I went down to the first inaugural ball to play with Regina Bell, and a musician friend of mine who was down there called me up and said his group was performing at another ball honoring Maya Angelou, and did I want to be part of that band? And I said ‘I’m already here, that’s fine.’”
After the Maya Angelou gig, a representative of Stevie Wonder came up to Benjamin and told her, “Hey, Stevie needs a band; we’re playing at the Finance Center. But you can’t take your car. We’re going to walk outside – that’s the most direct way to get there.”
Somewhat in shock, Benjamin said yes, and walked to the gig in the cold, instruments in hand. She played an opening set with the band, but Stevie was nowhere to be seen.
Suddenly, he came on stage. Benjamin was sure she would just play a single song with him, but the set lasted for 90 minutes.
“We were jamming out,” Benjamin remembers. “His piano was right next to me. I already knew all the solos from the records, so I would mix them around and stuff. It was great.” Other performances with Wonder were to follow.
These days, the gigs with Craig Robinson are keeping her busy, and she’s performing and doing some songwriting for a CBS pilot that stars him.
And she has been in the studio.
In June 2012, she released her first collection of original music, “Retox,” on the highly-touted Motema label, with featured performances by prominent vocalists like Melanie Charles and China Blac. She continues to tour around the world, and has appeared in places as far removed as Kyrgyzstan, where she performed John Coltrane’s “Alabama” to much acclaim. More recently, she played at the Moers Festival in Germany with Soulsquad, which features Joe Blaxx, Solomon Dorsey, Chris Rob, Jonathan Powell and Vickie Natalie.
And how has all this success affected her outlook? Benjamin is characteristically cool-headed and gracious in her response to that question, just as she is that night on the bandstand after James Carter finishes his solo, and it’s her turn to step up. She takes the stage and begins to burn. There’s an immediate, electric feeling in the air. The “risk quotient” rises discernibly, and the potential for unknown, exciting discoveries becomes tantalizingly tangible.
The audience is right there with her. We all go somewhere new.
“A lot of people have helped me get to where I am now,” she says, “So I can’t take all the credit. I mean, Bill Saxton is my godfather, so when I saw him play for the first time I was like, ‘Oh Lord, here we go.’ James Carter was helping me out back when I was still in high school. People like the great Patience Higgins really encouraged me. For a long time, these folks have been inviting me up on the bandstand and forcing me to play, whether I knew the song or not. I was thrust into the fire on those first gigs. I don’t know what else to say. There’s just a lot of love there.”
For more information on Lakecia Benjamin and her latest recordings, see www.LakeciaBenjamin.com.
This article first appeared in the April 2013 issue of Allegro, the magazine of the New York City musicians’ union (AFM Local 802). For more information, see www.Local802afm.org.