Play It Forward: Lakecia Benjamin Sings Through Her Saxophone | WCAI

Play It Forward: Lakecia Benjamin Sings Through Her Saxophone

Jun 11, 2020

Last time on Play It Forward, our musical chain of gratitude, R&B singer and producer Georgia Anne Muldrow raved about the saxophonist Lakecia Benjamin. They share a few things in common: Both studied together at The New School's School of Jazz and Contemporary Music, both tap a similar spiritual vein in their music and as Muldrow sees it, both are "sangin' " even if it's through different mediums. Benjamin extends the connection in this episode, sharing a song they recorded together off her new album Pursuance: The Coltranes. Ari Shapiro talked to her at length about the record, which reinterprets the work of John and Alice Coltrane with the help of a staggering ensemble cast, and about an artist she is grateful for: James Blake. Listen in the audio player above and read on for highlights from the interview.


Interview Highlights

On her new album Pursuance: The Coltranes

The whole project was a long-coming thing, but long story short, I really have always admired John Coltrane and Alice Coltrane. I always felt they were the perfect dynamic of what a complete musician should be in terms of technically proficient, spiritually proficient, good human beings out here trying to heal and help people. For me, they were the highest level, especially in jazz, that you could achieve as a musician so I wanted to do a project that could somehow pay honor to what they've done for the whole music and art form and just also remember the legends that are still living now and pay homage to them before they pass on.

When I say long time coming, I mean I've always had that affinity for them two. But in terms of the logistics, I got the idea to start reaching out some of my peers and also people that I didn't know that were legends that I possibly wanted to work with. I wasn't sure if they'd work with me or not. Bottom line is no one really knew who I was, so I was just calling them cold turkey, finding their numbers on the Internet. I did that top of July [2019].

Meshell Ndegeocello I didn't know at all. She's on the track with Georgia [Anne Muldrow], "Om Shanti." So Meshell's playing bass. That person actually speaking, that's a recording of Alice Coltrane talking. We wanted to have Alice Coltrane on the track with us in some way.

YouTube

Looking back at those busy recording sessions amid the pandemic

I think in the music world at least, things are very grim. None of us know what our future is: Are we gonna play again, are we gonna congregate again? Some people are sad about it, some people [have] a little bit of hopelessness. So for me, I can kind of hold onto the fact that my last major recording and memory was a whole dream project that I did.

On her choice for Play It Forward: James Blake

The first time I heard James Blake, I felt like somebody jumped inside of my body and hugged my soul, and I just knew it was gonna be OK after that.

He has such a haunting quality. It's rare that you find an artist that their musicianship and caliber are so high on so many different instruments: producing, singing, piano playing. And he's not afraid to embrace the darkness, either. I feel like sometimes when things go mainstream, we feel like they have to be really exciting and poppy and sugarcoated, and he's not afraid to bare his soul to the world and let you see that there's beauty on the other side as well.

YouTube

On seeing James Blake live

I've only actually seen him one time in person. I was in Tennessee playing at Bonnaroo, and someone came and ran to me and said, "James Blake is playing!" I was on stage packing up. I just left my sax there and ran over to where he was. I'll never forget that show. Because I was an artist performing there, I had the VIP pass. I could be backstage, so I kinda ran past everybody. It was probably like 10,000 people [in the] crowd. It was so thick. This festival was out in the woods, like rural, mud. And I kinda ran past everybody, showed my badge, jumped the gate and I went straight to the stage right in front of him. He had a drummer and a guitar player and him, and he was just kind of sitting there playing little things on the keys. It was not that much sound going, like a sample was happening. And next thing you know he dropped the beat, and I just fell to my knees, I was like "Yes! I've made it!" I stayed there in that place for probably the whole hour and a half or whatever it was.

Parting words for Blake

James Blake, thank you so much for all you do for the community, for music. Thank you for being born, brother. Thank you for embracing the darkness, thank you for embracing the light and thank you for inspiring me and so many other people to do what we do. Keep striving to be the best self you can be.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

It's time for Play It Forward, our musical chain of gratitude where we talk to artists about their music and the musicians they're thankful for. Last time, we spoke with Georgia Anne Muldrow. As a singer and producer, she's made more than a dozen albums of jazz, blues and R&B music, and she told me that she's grateful for Lakecia Benjamin, a saxophone player from New York. I asked Muldrow what she'd like to say to Benjamin.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

GEORGIA ANNE MULDROW: Lakecia Benjamin, I want to thank you for your courageous attitude, for not giving up and rising above and into all that you must be to find your peace. And I just wanted to say just keep on blooming and growing into your angel self because you're wonderful, and this whole world going to know exactly what it is with you and this music.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAKECIA BENJAMIN'S "PREMA")

SHAPIRO: And Lakecia Benjamin joins us now from New York City.

Welcome to Play It Forward.

LAKECIA BENJAMIN: Hi. Thanks.

SHAPIRO: So first, I'd just love to hear your response to what Georgia Anne Muldrow just said.

BENJAMIN: I mean, I think that was the most moving statement I've ever heard about me or my music, so I guess I'm just honored and so excited and glad that I've touched another soul that way.

SHAPIRO: Let's talk about your latest album. It's called "Pursuance: The Coltranes," and it is a celebration of John and Alice Coltrane. A bunch of your jazz heroes play on this album. Can you just tell us about the project?

BENJAMIN: Well, the whole project was a long-coming thing, but I - long story short, I really have always, always admired John Coltrane and Alice Coltrane. I always felt they were the perfect dynamic of what a complete musician should be in terms of technically proficient, spiritually proficient, good human beings out here trying to heal and help people. So I felt that for me, they were the highest level, especially in jazz, that you could achieve.

SHAPIRO: You say this project was a long time coming, but I understand you recorded it all in two days with, like, dozens of musicians all in the room together. Is that right?

BENJAMIN: Yeah. When I say long time coming, I mean I've always had that affinity for them two. But...

SHAPIRO: Yeah.

BENJAMIN: In terms of the - you know, the logistics, I got the idea to maybe start reaching out to some of my peers and also people that I didn't know that were legends that I possibly wanted to work with. I wasn't sure if they'd work with me or not, you know, because bottom line is no one really knew who I was. So I was just calling them kind of cold turkey.

SHAPIRO: Who was the biggest person you cold called?

BENJAMIN: Meshell Ndegeocello I didn't know at all.

SHAPIRO: Wow. And which track is she on?

BENJAMIN: She's on the track with Georgia. She's on "Om Shanti."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "OM SHANTI")

MULDROW: (Singing in non-English language).

ALICE COLTRANE: Om shanti. I pray all of those present who seek the truth that is God - that they will not be held under the influence of (unintelligible), ignorance and misunderstanding and their desires (unintelligible) anger the righteous but that they will strive daily, seeking the truth that is God; that they will sincerely (unintelligible).

BENJAMIN: So Meshell's playing bass. That person actually speaking, that's a recording of Alice Coltrane talking.

SHAPIRO: Wow.

BENJAMIN: So we wanted to have Alice Coltrane on the track with us in some way.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAKECIA BENJAMIN SONG, "OM SHANTI")

SHAPIRO: Does thinking about those gatherings take on a different tone now when it's so hard for everyone to physically be together?

BENJAMIN: It really does because I think in the music world, at least, things are very grim in terms of - none of us knows what our future is. Are we going to play again? Are we going to congregate again? And it's - some people are sad about it. Some people are a little bit of hopelessness. So for me, I can kind of hold onto the fact that my last major recording in memory was a whole dream project that I did.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "OM SHANTI")

MULDROW: (Singing in Indian).

SHAPIRO: Well, Lakecia Benjamin, it is your turn to move this train forward and tell us about somebody who you're thankful for, somebody whose music inspires you. Who would you like to tell us about?

BENJAMIN: I'd like to tell you about James Blake.

SHAPIRO: Oh, he's fantastic. Yes.

BENJAMIN: Phenomenal.

SHAPIRO: What does he do for you?

BENJAMIN: I think the first time I heard James Blake, I felt like someone jumped inside of my body and hugged my soul. And I just knew it was going to be OK after that.

SHAPIRO: That's beautiful. For people who aren't familiar with his music, is there a track of his we could play?

BENJAMIN: Yes. I think you should play "Retrograde."

SHAPIRO: All right. Let's listen.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "RETROGRADE")

JAMES BLAKE: (Singing) You're on your own. In a world you've grown - few more years to go. Don't let the hurdle fall. So be the girl you loved. Be the girl you loved. I'll wait.

SHAPIRO: Tell us what you're feeling as you hear this.

BENJAMIN: I mean, he's had - he has such a haunting quality. It's rare that you find an artist that the musicianship and caliber are so high on so many different instruments - producing, production, singing, piano playing. It's just - and he's not afraid to embrace the darkness, either. I feel like sometimes we kind of - when things go mainstream, we feel like they have to be really exciting and poppy and sugar-coated. And he's not afraid to, like, bare his soul to the world and let you see that there's beauty on the other side as well.

SHAPIRO: Have you two ever met or spoken?

BENJAMIN: I have not met - I've only actually seen him one time in person. I was in Tennessee playing at Bonnaroo, and someone came and ran to me and said, James Blake is playing. And I was onstage, packing up. I just left my sax there and ran over to where he was.

SHAPIRO: (Laughter).

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I'LL COME TOO")

BLAKE: (Singing) I'm going to say what I need if it's the last thing I do, I do, I do, I do. I'm in that kind of mood.

BENJAMIN: I mean, I'd never forget that show. I mean, because I was an artist performing there, I had, you know, the VIP passes. I could be backstage. So I kind of ran past everybody. It probably was, like - kind of want to say 10,000 people crowd. It was so thick. This festival was out in the woods - like, rural mud. And I kind of ran past everybody, showed my badge, jumped the gate. And I went straight to the stage right in front of him. They had a drummer and a guitar player and him, and he was just kind of sitting there, playing little things on the keys. It was not that much sound going. Like, a sample was happening. And next thing you know, he dropped the beat, and I just fell to my knees. I was like, yes.

SHAPIRO: (Laughter).

BENJAMIN: I made it. I stayed there in that place probably for the whole hour and a half or whatever it was.

SHAPIRO: That's such a perfect music moment.

BENJAMIN: It was great.

SHAPIRO: Well, we're going to James Blake next. What would you like to say to him?

BENJAMIN: I guess, James Blake, thank you so much for all you do for the community, for music. Thank you for being born, brother. Thank you for embracing the darkness. Thank you for embracing the light. And thank you for inspiring me and so many other people to do what we do, and keep striving to be the best self you can be.

SHAPIRO: Lakecia Benjamin - her latest album is "Pursuance: The Coltranes."

It's been wonderful talking with you. Thank you.

BENJAMIN: Oh, you, too. Thank you so much.

SHAPIRO: And we'll talk with James Blake in the next episode of Play It Forward.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I'LL COME TOO")

BLAKE: (Singing) I've got nothing to lose with you, with you, with you, with you. I'm in that kind of mood. I'll go under your wing. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.