By Ron Schepper, Textura

Lakecia Benjamin: Pursuance: The Coltranes

On logistical grounds alone, Pursuance: The Coltranes is a remarkable achievement. For her smartly conceived homage to John and Alice Coltrane, alto saxophonist Lakecia Benjamin assembled a star-studded cast of jazz musicians representing three generations, ones like her in the twenty-to-forty range, others a generation older who taught and mentored the younger players, and still-vital elders who performed with the Coltranes and are able to share the wisdom they gained from their first-hand experiences. Yet as impressive an accomplishment as it is on that level, the truest test of Benjamin’s third full-length as a leader has to do with the musical outcome, and thankfully the album’s a veritable garden of earthly delights, with Benjamin and company delivering incendiary treatments of thirteen selections, seven credited to John, six to Alice.

Figuring prominently are altoists Gary Bartz, Greg Osby, Steve Wilson, and Bruce Williams, violinist Regina Carter, bass clarinetist Marcus Strickland, harpist Brandee Younger, trumpeter Keyon Harrold, and vocalists Dee Dee Bridgewater and Georgia Anne Muldrow. Lonnie Plaxico and Darrell Green hold down the bottom end for much of it, but others appear too, among them bassists Reggie Workman (also the album’s co-producer), Ron Carter, John Benitez, Meshell Ndgecello, and Jonathan Michel and drummers Joe Blaxx and Marcus Gilmore. Sharp Radway’s the piano on many tracks, but Chris Rob, Surya Botofasina, Bertha Hope, Marc Cary, and Dave Bryant (on Rhodes) also perform.

Obviously the project’s rooted in jazz, but other flavours find their way into the album too. Traces of R&B, hip-hop, and funk surface, and Benjamin’s alto sound is not just silvery and sleek but oozes soul. That it does so hardly surprises considering that her Soul Squad group drinks from the vintage well of James Brown, Maceo Parker, Sly and the Family Stone, and the Meters as well as classic jazz. It’s worth noting also that while she’s played with jazz luminaries such as Rashied Ali and David Murray, she’s also worked with Stevie Wonder, Alicia Keys, Anita Baker, and others. Such breadth of experience works in her favour as she tackles the Coltranes’ wide-ranging material.

In not treating the originals as museum pieces but instead living organisms ripe for reimagining, Benjamin’s approach strikes the right note: it’s respectful but not excessively reverential, and sufficiently polished but not slick. A natural rawness and energy permeates the performances, which I’m guessing were first or second takes. Such conditions make for high-wire playing and in this case generally terrific results. With the selections spanning multiple periods in John’s life, from early bebop-styled cuts to A Love Supreme covers, and with material from both artists, the album casts a wide stylistic net and is all the more enriching for it.

The album’s framed by “Liberia” and “Affinity,” hard-swinging alto summits that unite Benjamin with her one-time teacher Bartz on the former and Osby and Williams on the latter. Following the fury of “Liberia,” Alice’s “Prema” dials down the intensity for a sultry vamp, its entrancing melodies calling forth a joyously singing solo from Benjamin wrapped in flute, harp, and string textures. Carter deepens the dirge-like moan of “Walk With Me” with heartfelt violin expressions, the piece advancing from a rubato intro into an urgent workout, Blaxx channeling Elvin Jones and the leader fluttering on high. Delving deep into a gospel tip, “Going Home” proves stirring, its melodies alluring and Benjamin, Younger, Strickland, and Radway all bolstering the performance’s ecstatic character.

From 1959’s Giant Steps, the infectiously swinging treatment of “Syeeda’s Song Flute” benefits from Carter’s assured thrust and impassioned turns by the leader and Harrold. Workman likewise helps distinguish Alice’s album-closing “Affinity,” though the performance is as noteworthy for Osby’s characteristically strong contribution. Benjamin elevates “Alabama” with majestic alto playing that does justice to the track’s historical dimension, after which Bridgewater’s “A Love Supreme” chant twists “Acknowledgement” into fresh shape. Elsewhere, a plinking piano figure buoys the funky, R&B-tinged groove of “Central Park West,” Benjamin in her element voicing soulful lines alongside Chris Rob’s warm organ and Jazzmeia Horn’s acrobatic scatting. On one of the album’s wilder performances, “Om Shanti” moves the album into a spiritual jazz context, with Muldrow chanting aggressively and Ndgecello spiking the downtempo pulse with throb. The album also finds room for Latin-driven and blues-soaked renditions of “Spiral” and “Turiya and Ramakrishna,” respectively.

Though Benjamin’s got many years ahead of her, Pursuance: The Coltranes will no doubt be one of the hallmarks of her career, perhaps one of many. It’ll certainly be interesting to see what she does as a follow-up; it could be something as jazz-centered but might also turn out to be something completely different, perhaps more in line with the territory associated with Soul Squad. For now, there’s more than enough pleasure to be had from this riveting collection.

March 2020

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