Vail Jazz Alumni: Lakecia Benjamin uses workshop experience to emulate empathy
Vail Jazz Alumni
Alto saxophonist Lakecia Benjamin knows that an attitude of positive connection sets her music apart. It’s no wonder then that her lingering memories of the 1999 Vail Jazz Workshop are of elevation, encouragement, and inspiration.
“My goal is the emotional wellbeing of my audience. Every note that I play is aimed at uplifting people. Every time I play I would like listeners to feel emotionally impacted, moved,” she said in an interview with Vail Jazz board member JoAnn Hickey. “I’m from New York City, which is crowded and fast paced. Before Vail, I had never been on a plane and had never been to a place with clean air. In Vail, I stayed in a house in the mountains. I didn’t have to think about food or money. The Workshop instructors made it so spiritually easy, emotionally easy. It’s amazing to get chances in life where there is nothing to worry about other than the art.”
Of course, a tremendous amount of hard work goes into many easy-seeming projects. That’s true of the effort it has taken to present the Vail Jazz Workshop every summer for the past 25 years. For instance, this year’s workshop, involving 12 young musicians and a faculty of six jazz professionals, took place virtually.
Hard work exemplifies Benjamin’s career as well. Her drive, intensity, and commitment to music have fueled her determination to carve a place for herself in the jazz world. That perseverance paid off with the release this March of her third album, “Pursuance: The Coltranes,” which has received glowing reviews from critics and fans alike.
Benjamin envisioned her homage to the legendary tenor saxophonist John Coltrane and his pianist wife Alice as being enriched by a vast range of jazz luminaries, each of whom had some claim to the ‘Tranes. She doggedly enlisted a stellar, multi-generational assemblage of musicians, including Coltrane contemporary Ron Carter, singer Dee Dee Bridgewater, rising players such as singer Georgia Anne Muldrow and trumpeter Keyon Harrold, and avant-garde musicians Meshell Ndegeocello and Surya Botofasina.
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Benjamin’s connection to the esteemed 82-year-old bassist Reggie Workman proved fortuitous. Workman performed on numerous Coltrane albums; he also auditioned Benjamin for the jazz program at the New School University in New York City, where she studied. Workman agreed to co-produce “Pursuance” and to share his extensive industry contacts with her.
Still, her vision for the lineup was sweeping, and the logistics involved of getting 40 musicians into the studio was daunting.
“When people said no,” she said, “I went to their houses. I just kept hounding even up to the day of the recording. By August, I realized I had all of these people and needed to get on with the arranging. I did all of the writing on the piano. After two weeks, I called in the band.”
Stunningly, the recording process was completed over the course of just two 12-hour days. Why such a grueling schedule?
“It was about finances with a little bit of luck from God. Everyone was free on those random days in August and they were also in New York. I didn’t have to fly anyone in. A lot of factors worked in my favor. Being naive really helped each step of the way,” she said.
From the get-go, Benjamin was keen on giving equal play to the music of Alice Coltrane.
“Her music is so flexible,” she said. “Some of it doesn’t even have drums. It’s like a constant droning chant. It was easy for me to convey her spiritual message.”
Thirty-four-year-old Benjamin grew up in a Dominican neighborhood in New York City. Her home was multi-generational and her exposure to musical genres diverse. Her musical heritage is evident in her unique blend of Latin, fusion, hip hop, funk, soul, and of course, jazz.
Prior to releasing “Pursuance,” Benjamin recorded several albums and performed with the likes of Stevie Wonder, Anita Baker, Alicia Keys, The Roots and Macy Gray.
However, 2020 has been her year to shine. By an overwhelming margin, DownBeat magazine’s Critics Poll named Benjamin the rising star on alto sax. “Pursuance” placed in the same poll’s Album of the Year category, and Benjamin also placed as a Rising Star Arranger. The Jazz Journalists Association named her Up and Coming Artist of the Year. Although Covid-19 has sidelined her live performances, Benjamin has been busy with interviews for NPR, The New Yorker magazine, BBC, and many jazz publications worldwide.
Reflecting on her Vail Jazz Workshop experience, Benjamin said, “What was interesting to me was that the faculty brings all of these legends to life through their musical instruction. The stories they had, the way they embraced life….to meet teachers that were friendly, open minded and dedicated to the jazz lineage, inviting me to look them up when I got older – that doesn’t just happen for young musicians. Now with my students, I see them as potential musicians I will know for the rest of my life. How I make them feel, how I treat them, they will never forget.”