‘Saxophonist to the Stars’ Lakecia Benjamin Steps Into the Spotlight With Debut CD, Retox
Irresistible Set of Original Jazz-Tinged Funk and R&B Out Now On Motéma Music
Charismatic and dynamic saxophonist/bandleader Lakecia Benjamin, who has played with Stevie Wonder, Alicia Keys, The Roots and Macy Gray, will take center stage in her own right with the June 12 release of her unconventional soul/funk album, RETOX, on Motéma Music.
While she’s made quite an impact with her impressive sax work on stage and on record, Benjamin opted to take a slightly different tackon RETOX, allowing her talents as a composer and producer to share the spotlight with her funky sax struts. In fact, several of the CD’s 12 tracks don’t even feature sax. “This album is really a fruition of years of songwriting as much as it is a showcase for my sax playing and horn arrangements,” said Benjamin. On songs like “My Love” and “Share” she’s chosen to let the vocals carry the song. “I was more concerned with doing justice to my compositions than putting a sax solo in every song.”
Benjamin began her career at the young age of 12, eventually earning a scholarship at the New School and landing stints with some of the most respected artists in jazz, including trumpet giant, Clark Terry and experimental jazz icon Reggie Workman. On RETOX, she shows off her impeccable, purist jazz resume with a deep, kaleidoscopic and ingeniously arranged mix of original old school soul and funk songs as well as a Stevie Wonder classic, “Don’t You Worry ‘Bout a Thing.” An A-list of edgy vocalists, both established and emerging talent such as Krystle Warren, Amp Fiddler, Maya Azucena, Chinah Blac and Melanie Charles, join Benjamin on an album that’s as electrifyingly diverse as the cast that plays on it. “I call my band SoulSquad because, even as a kid, I always wanted to play like I was in an army of funky musicians,” says Benjamin.
Though her own music is immersed in the vintage sounds of James Brown, Maceo Parker, Sly and the Family Stone and the Meters as well as classic jazz, Benjamin’s soaring, dance floor-friendly grooves take the classic vibe to a whole new level. The constant throughout it all is Benjamin’s summery, sultry alto saxophone, adding something special, on every cut – be it a smoldering late-night ambience, an erudite, forceful jazz intensity or the tight funk multi-horn harmony sections that pepper the proceedings throughout.
Hit producer Ben Kane (D’Angelo, Krystle Warren), who engineered and co-produced the album with Benjamin, gives the tracks a rich, full-bodied analog sound, that nods to the great radio hits from the golden age of soul.
“With many artists, the musical compositions are conceived as a vehicle for that artist’s own voice to shine. Working with Lakecia is a bit different in the sense that it is really the compositions themselves where she lends much of her musical voice. The goal on RETOX was to do each song justice, regardless of what role her saxophone would play. In doing so, I tried to keep a certain rawness that would allow for the soul of each song to shine though. It is that raw soul I think that unites the seemingly different genres featured on this album and reflects who Lakecia is as an artist and composer.”
Benjamin’s unique new contribution to the future of soul and funk is sure to win over fans of acts from Maceo Parker and Sharon Jones to Adele and Erykah Badu. In keeping with her eclectic style, the tracks are a mix of vocal and instrumental joints. Along with the blissfully peaceful “Dreams,” there are some serious party jams: the band’s signature, P-Funk flavored opening track, “SoulSquad” – which evolved out of a jam at a concert sound check; “Maceo,” a period-perfect, JB’s-style tribute to funky sax legend Maceo Parker; and the horn-driven groove “Get Down,” which Benjamin describes as, “A go-go feel meets James Brown, just to show that vocalists aren’t the only life of the party!”
The CD’s remaining tracks cover a lot of ground as well. “Keep Talkin’,” a casually seductive duet between Amp Fiddler and Tracey Nicole, mashes up a sweet mid 60’s-style soul melody with more ambitious 70’s stylings. “Growing up in the 90’s in Washington Heights, I used to wake up on a Saturday morning: Sunny day, people barbecuing, sounds of Arrested Development, A Tribe Called Quest, or Common hanging in the air,” says Benjamin. “On ‘Share My Life,’ I wanted to re-create that feeling.” Recreate it she does, on a track that features airy, carefree vocals by Jacoria Marzett and a cameo from rapper Whosane over a swirling, summery ambience. Benjamin relates how “My Love,” featuring the nuanced, Sarah Vaughan-esque voice of Memphis born, Parisian based Krystle Warren, addresses how love transcends mere physical attraction: “It’s about walking through life and knowing you have a like-minded individual to grow with.”
“Human Being” hypnotically fuses jazz and funk with gospel in an echoey blend reminiscent of Digable Planets, featuring singer Mavis Swann Poole – a friend of Benjamin’s since college – out front and center. With its wickedly catchy hook, “Jump and Shout,” the first single and video from the album, holds nothing back, a driving but sultry kiss-off anthem. Benjamin had been looking for a singer to channel her lyrics’ righteous rage and when she heard Chinah Blacc singing at a house party, she realized she’d found the perfect match.
The easygoing, satisfied, boudoir-pop song “Smile” bounces along with lead vocals by Benjamin’s longtime friend and collaborator Maya Azucena and one of Benjamin’s signature lush, balmy horn charts, along with an exquisitely warm, direct alto sax solo. And “Don’t You Worry ‘Bout A Thing” pays homage to Benjamin’s friend Stevie Wonder: Benjamin speeds it up, reinventing it for the dance floor with Latin sabor and a tight clave beat.
The closing track, “Slow Juice,” is, says Benjamin, “a new version of ‘Juicy,’ another one of my compositions, which was originally going to be on the album. As we were listening to it in the studio one day, I asked Ben to rewind back to a certain part. I don’t know what button he pressed, but the song started playing about four speeds slower. I loved it! So I decidedto take out all the horn parts and vocals and create a whole new song over that groove. Hence the title: ‘Slow Juice!’”
“Lakecia is a great signing for us,” enthuses Motéma president Jana Herzen. “She brings up the younger guard of our roster with impeccably jazz-infused funk and soul that’s delivered with a kind of balls to the wall rock and roll attitude.” Herzen explains she first discovered Lakecia at a performance of Kit McClure’s Big Band at the Mary Lou Williams Women in Jazz Festival at Kennedy Center for the Arts. “Though Lakecia wasn’t a soloist on that gig, my eye was continually drawn to her. Her presence literally radiated from stage like a beacon. Backstage later that night I asked bassist Rufus Reid (also a Motéma artist) about her and he said knowingly, ‘Yeah, things have been getting very personal with Lakecia lately.’ He meant that she was really making her music her own. That vignette told me a lot about her. The fact that Rufus, a respected elder on the jazz scene, was watching her closely, made me take a closer look and I soon discovered she was very well loved. She’s super talented, super disciplined and terrifically unpredictable. I think she has a huge career ahead of her.”
MORE ABOUT LAKECIA BENJAMIN
A streetwise New York City native born and raised in Washington Heights, Lakecia Benjamin has become one of the most highly sought-after players in soul and funk music. She first picked up the saxophone at Fiorello LaGuardia High School for the Performing Arts, after which she joined the renowned jazz program at New York’s New School University. By that time she was already playing with renowned jazz figures like Clark Terry and Reggie Workman, which led to gigs and tours with a wide array of artists such as Rashied Ali, the David Murray Big Band, Vanessa Rubin and
James “Blood” Ulmer. With her deep jazz roots, she was soon in demand as an arranger and horn section leader, landing stints with such acclaimed artists as Stevie Wonder, Alicia Keys, Macy Gray, the Roots, and Anita Baker.
Currently, Benjamin is a featured musician and arranger for comedy star Craig Robinson and the Nasty Delicious. (Robinson, best known for his work on TV’s The Office as well as such popular films as Pineapple Express and Hot Tub Time Machine, tours regularly with the Nasty Delicious band serving as the main foil in his popular comedy act). Benjamin has also had the honor of performing at the White House at President Obama’s inaugural ball. She’s performed on four continents and her extensive recording credits include saxophone and arrangements for Santigold, Maurice Brown, the Clark Terry Big Band, Krystle Warren and Talib Kweli, among others.
On RETOX, her debut on the three-time Grammy nominated, Harlem-based Motéma Music, Benjamin follows rising label star Gregory Porter as the second in a new series of soul-jazz vocal crossover acts on the label, which first built its reputation by releasing first rate instrumental jazz. The label is also home to NEA Jazz Master Randy Weston, Grammy nominated jazz-reggae crossover innovator Monty Alexander and NAACP Image award nominee Geri Allen.