CELEBRATING
50 YEARS

Chops: Lakecia Benjamin and the Coltranes

The alto saxophonist's tribute to John and Alice is a lesson in logistics

Lakecia Benjamin (photo: Elizabeth Leitzell)
Lakecia Benjamin (photo: Elizabeth Leitzell)

On alto saxophonist Lakecia Benjamin’s new themed album of John and Alice Coltrane covers, Pursuance: The Coltranes, she doesn’t just pay homage to jazz’s most intimidating power couple. Benjamin also enlisted a dizzying assemblage of guests, from the Coltranes’ colleagues (bassists Ron Carter and Reggie Workman) to rising players (singer Georgia Anne Muldrow and trumpeter Keyon Harrold) to genre-blurring innovators (bassist Meshell Ndegeocello and keyboardist Surya Botofasina).

Which says less about the depth of her Rolodex than it does her expertise in herding cats.

“It’s assumed that they’re all my friends and they wanted to play on the CD and they all love me,” Benjamin tells JazzTimes over a Skype call during the height of the coronavirus pandemic. “It was hard to get every last one of them. There was no easy person. It’s not like I’m a household name, you know?”

By remaining patient and persistent, she brought Pursuance, which came out March 27, to the finish line. And instead of being overstuffed by guest stars, the album is reverential and luminous, shining a light on her subjects and collaborators as much as herself. “The idea of the album is that people don’t walk away knowing who I am,” she says. “They walk away knowing who they are.”

“Everybody had a time. You come in at 12, you come in at 1 … we just put everybody in a line. I was texting people, ‘Are you on your way?’ while we were recording.”

Back in 2018, Benjamin dipped a toe in those venerated waters by playing a show in honor of John Coltrane at Dizzy’s Club in Manhattan. “I enjoyed it a lot, but I felt like something was missing,” she admits. “It felt like just another sax player doing a tribute to [him] without having a real message.” What was missing, she realized, was Alice, who was largely eclipsed by John despite being an equal and parallel talent.

To get her vision off the ground, Benjamin says, she needed to bring someone from the Coltranes’ circle on board. Enter Reggie Workman, the double bassist who played on John’s Africa/Brass (1961), Olé Coltrane (1961), and Impressions (1963) and Alice’s World Galaxy (1972), Reflection on Creation and Space (A Five Year View) (1973), and Transfiguration (1978), among others—and who had also just happened to have been the one who auditioned Benjamin into the jazz program at the New School in New York.

“I told him that I wanted the album to not only feature the Coltranes’ music, but to feature all the guests that were alive that were connected to them,” Benjamin says. Workman agreed to work on Pursuance as a bassist and co-producer, and she followed his chain of referrals to amass jazz talent from multiple subgenres and generations.

By the time everyone was on the same page, Benjamin had two weeks to arrange the selections, which she narrowed down based on what had most immediately grabbed her years prior while first discovering the Coltranes on torrenting sites. This included tracks from John’s early-to-mid-1960s sweet spot like “Spiral,” “Syeeda’s Song Flute,” and “Acknowledgement,” and spectral Alice tunes “Turiya and Ramakrishna,” “Affinity,” and “Om Shanti.”

Did Benjamin feel any anxiety about doing the Coltranes justice? Not with Alice, she says. “I’ve always felt her music is so flexible,” Benjamin explains. “Some of it doesn’t even have drums. It’s like a constant droning chant. It was easier for me to convey a spiritual message.”

Channeling John, she says, was a more taxing proposition. “You have already in your head ‘Giant Steps.’ You have already in your head ‘Impressions.’ You can’t get the sound out of your head as a saxophone player,” she stresses. “So I was a little concerned as to how I was going to revamp this music and still keep the integrity there.”

Alice Coltrane (photo: sri hari moss)
Alice Coltrane (photo: Sri Hari Moss)

Pursuance was recorded in two marathon 12-hour sessions in August of 2019 at the Bunker Studios in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. “Everybody had a time,” Benjamin, who handled the itinerary herself, remembers. “You come in at 12, you come in at 1 … we just put everybody in a line. I was texting people, ‘Are you on your way?’ while we were recording.”

But, she says, “we made it one big jazz party.”

On March 11, 2020, a gold-sequined and smiling Benjamin unveiled the album at Dizzy’s with many of her guests in tow—finishing what she started when she first set out to honor John Coltrane. She laughs at the suggestion that Pursuance’s title takes on new meaning given her doggedness as a scheduler, coordinator, and outreach strategist.

“Every gig I’ve ever gotten, that’s how I’ve had to do it,” Benjamin says at the end of the call. “I’ve had to hunt people down. There’s never been a time in my life where people are like, ‘Gosh, I can’t wait to call Lakecia today.’ I always have to make myself known on the scene. I’m used to having to make a way for myself.”

Means of Pursuance

Whether channeling the Coltranes or following her own muse, Lakecia Benjamin switches between Selmer Paris alto saxophones (generally Series IIs from the ‘90s and ‘00s) and a Yanagisawa A-WO1 alto with an AW3 solid silver neck. She favors Vandoren V5 mouthpieces, Vandoren Optimum ligatures, and Vandoren JAVA Red reeds, size 3. And she’s a big fan of Key Leaves sax care products.

Lakecia Benjamin: Rising Soul