For someone who exhibits striking presence and showmanship onstage, alto saxophonist Lakecia Benjamin’s path to being a professional musician seems surprisingly-almost unbelievably-incidental. “As a kid, I always thought that being a musician was just something that everybody did,” says Benjamin, 28. It wasn’t until she struggled to make financial ends meet as a student at Manhattan’s the New School that it finally dawned on her she could make a career out of playing music.
After tightening her hustle, Benjamin landed gigs with hip-hop and R&B stars such as Missy Elliott and Alicia Keys. Those experiences greatly informed her charming 2012 debut, Retox (Motéma). When Benjamin details the motivation behind that disc, she sounds as nonchalant as she did about becoming a musician. “People don’t believe me but I never intended to release a CD or start a band,” she explains. “I just thought that if I had a CD it would be cool.”
Instead of emphasizing her citrus-toned melodies and searing improvisations, many of the tunes on Retox place brighter spotlights on her Soul Squad band and the disc’s various guest vocalists and rappers. More intriguing, some of the standout tunes, such as the sanguine midtempo soul-burner “Share My Love” and the sensual ballad “My Love,” don’t feature saxophone at all. “I wanted to introduce to the world the fact that not only am I a saxophonist but also a bandleader and composer,” Benjamin explains.
She credits Retox for being the impetus behind her becoming a bandleader. While making the disc, she discovered that she enjoyed being the leader because it gave her such a wide palette for expression. “Lakecia knows exactly what she wants from each band member, and more important, she knows how to get it out of them,” says trumpeter Jonathan Powell, a longtime member of Soul Squad. “She’s also one of the most energetic musicians I’ve ever played with.”
Maya Azucena, one of the featured singers on Retox and one of Benjamin’s frequent collaborators, praises the saxophonist’s knack for being a bona fide entertainer, a talent that aligns her with such contemporaries as Trombone Shorty and Jonathan Batiste. “Her showmanship is on par with the great artists that came out of the James Brown camp,” Azucena says.
After three years of touring around the world to support Retox, Benjamin is finishing her second disc, tentatively titled March On. She explains that the material will have more introspective and sociopolitical overtones. “A lot of songs on the new disc have empowering messages,” Benjamin says. “Of course there will be regular party songs dealing with love and the joys of life. But there will be some cuts that deal with a lot of the discrimination that’s going on today. I wake up in different hotels in different countries all the time, and no matter where, I see a lot of unrest within the people. When I come back home to the U.S. I see so many people getting shot and killed.”
Playing the saxophone may have prevented Benjamin from being a victim of violence. Raised in New York City’s Washington Heights neighborhood, she began studying the recorder, then the saxophone, at Eleanor Roosevelt Junior High School 143. After junior high, students either had to apply to a high school of their choosing or be sent to schools in their respective zones. “The school zone in my district was notorious for violence,” she recalls. “I knew that it if I went there I wouldn’t make it through because I wasn’t big enough.”
Music came to the rescue when Benjamin was accepted into the prestigious, performing-arts-focused Fiorello H. LaGuardia High School. It was there that her teacher, legendary tuba player Bob Stewart, turned her on to jazz. Because Benjamin was a gifted sight-reader, he encouraged her to study jazz. Prior to that, she grew up listening and playing mostly Latin music, specifically merengue, because of Washington Heights’ heavy Dominican population. Stewart showed Benjamin the ropes of how to play effectively in a horn section as well the importance of having an individual voice. “He always said that the earlier you find your own sound, the more in-demand you’ll become,” she recalls.
Saxophonist Bruce Williams also became an influential mentor to Benjamin. He worked with her on technical exercises such as Hyacinthe Klosé’s 25 daily etudes and introduced her to such jazz saxophonists as Charlie Parker, John Coltrane and Jackie McLean. “Lakecia has great rhythm and time, an uncanny sense of soul and a balance that’s not often heard in young players,” praises Williams. “She’s very comfortable with grooves, swing and anything that has a real warm, steady beat.”
In addition to leading her Soul Squad, Benjamin continues to be an in-demand ensemble player, landing high-profile gigs with David Murray, the Roots, James Blood Ulmer and Gregory Porter, among others. She also secures big gigs arranging horn charts and leads her own horn ensemble, the Hot Spot Horns. In March, she and the Hot Spot Horns worked with Harry Belafonte on singer-songwriter Mali Music’s forthcoming disc. “People who I’ve played with have said that I’ve always felt like a bandleader within a band,” Benjamin says. “I guess that’s just a part of my personality.”