By Eric Snider, Jazziz Magazine
At first, alto saxophonist Lakecia Benjamin was ambivalent about recording a Coltrane tribute album, but ultimately pulled the trigger knowing that her concept was materially different than the scores of Coltrane projects that preceded hers.
Pursuance (Ropeadope Records) honors and interprets the music of both Alice and John Coltrane — with six compositions by Alice and seven by John. They include the robustly swinging “Liberia” and “Affinity,” the lushly orchestral “Prema” and the R&B-inflected “Central Park West,” which features vocals by Jazzmeia Horn. The epic “Om Shanti,” sung and recited by Georgia Anne Muldrow, begins as an ethereal meditation and builds to a sludgy rock crescendo, heavy guitar and all.
Benjamin, 32, also took comfort in knowing that her tart-toned alto would provide sonic distance from Trane’s immortal tenor sound. “I don’t play the same instrument as him, so he’s not haunting me on every song,” she says.
Born and raised in the Washington Heights section of Manhattan, Benjamin’s career has leaned mostly toward funk, soul and various Latin styles. She leads a busy working band, Soul Squad, and has shared stages and recording studios with the likes of Alicia Keys, The Roots, Madlib and others. At 18, while visiting her friend Muldrow in California, Benjamin met Alice Coltrane at the musician and swami’s ashram near Los Angeles. Enthralled, Benjamin began studying Alice’s music after returning to New York. Soon thereafter she took a deep dive into John’s work.
In March 2018, Benjamin pitched a John Coltrane tribute concert to Jazz at Lincoln Center. The set went over so well that she played a few more Trane-inspired gigs using musicians outside of Soul Squad, after which she resolved to record an homage to John with a new band.
“I decided I did not want to pay tribute to John alone but to add Alice Coltrane’s music, because they are both favorites of mine,” Benjamin says. Artistic ambition ramped up and, after huddling with her mentor — bassist Reggie Workman, a Trane sideman in the early ’60s — the concept morphed into a multi-generational all-star project.
Benjamin, who financed the project herself, acted as producer, arranger and talent wrangler. With co-producer Workman opening a few doors, she tirelessly recruited dozens of guest musicians, from elders like Ron Carter, Gary Bartz and Dee Dee Bridgewater to such stalwarts as Greg Osby and Marcus Strickland to several of her contemporaries, including Keyon Harold and Brandee Younger. Her budget ballooned, a few confirmed players canceled at the last minute, and Benjamin’s frustrations and second-guessing mounted.
But it all came together in August 2019, with most of the recording accomplished during two marathon sessions in a Brooklyn studio. “It was like a jazz funeral without the death,” Benjamin says. “Everyone was hanging around having a good time, telling stories. I wouldn’t have wanted to be any place else in the world, and I think the other players felt the same way.” —Eric Snider