Lakecia Benjamin on paying tribute to the Coltranes with her project ‘Pursuance’
On her 2020 album Pursuance: The Coltranes, saxophonist Lakecia Benjamin presents some new and exciting interpretations of the music of jazz pioneers Alice and John Coltrane. Alice’s piece “Prema” is given a bold, regal arrangement while “Alabama” taps into the pain and anguish that John expressed when he wrote it in 1963 after the Ku Klux Klan bombed the 13th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, killing four young girls.
By presenting the music of both John and Alice together, Benjamin celebrates the similarities and differences of both musicians while articulating the deep spiritual reality encoded in the Coltranes’ music.
Ahead of her performance at Arden Gild Hall on Saturday, March 5th I sat and talked with Lakecia Benjamin about John and Alice Coltrane, touring and the communal nature of Black music.
The Key: For starters, I’m curious because so many musicians over the years have played the music of John Coltrane. Why was it important to you to present Alice’s music in that same light alongside John’s music?
Lakecia Benjamin: I guess I don’t think about their music as separate music. Maybe if you’re a saxophone player, you tend to believe that you play the saxophone so of course you’re a John Coltrane lover, which I can understand, but I found out about Alice Coltrane’s music before John Coltrane’s music. Before I even knew who he was. So, to me the work [of Alice] is as important as his work. Not in terms of who’s more special or who’s more talented, but kind of like a yang and yang of each other. So I thought, just in terms of me being true to myself and the identity that I identify with, it was important to have both artists there.
TK: How did you first hear Alice’s music?
LB: One of my best friends is Georgia Anne Muldrow and her dad is [jazz guitarist and Coltrane family friend] Ronald Muldrow. So I was at her house one day and she played me Alice. We were listening to Al Green or something. And she said, “Have you ever heard Alice Coltrane’s music?” And I was like, “oh no, I haven’t.” So she played me Ptah, The El Dauod. Oh yeah. So I listened to that and Pharoah [Sanders] is on it, Joe Henderson, Ben Riley, Ron Carter, all of my favorite cats. And then, I went on a rampage to find all of Alice Coltrane’s music. One day, I happened to look through one of the booklets and she had mentioned “All praises due to John Coltrane.” So in my, I thought, okay there’s another Coltrane, maybe it was a brother or something. Let me Google this guy and see what she’s talking about. So when I Googled him, it became clear to me it’s not her brother and that there’s a massive amount of work on the same instrument that I’m missing. So I kind of went out and bought all the albums of his I could, and I put them in chronological order. So yeah. I went back from the beginning and however long it took me to — probably a couple years — so that I could get a good idea, of who he was.
TK: Yeah. What did you gather from digging into his music? What was your opinion of his work and what was the feeling that it gave you?
LB: The feeling for both of their work was just that you get a sense of a higher purpose, like a higher devotion. But when you start from the beginning, you kind of get the evolutionary experience of it, the innovation that started to happen. You’re starting off like a straight be-bop. And you know, some of the beginnings I heard were not that great, you know? He was on alto or something and it was really weird, but you kinda get to see how he evolved. I’m big on the history so it got me into reading more about his life. What was correlating with his life and the music. You could kind of see how someone’s making a transformation from a younger man into who they wanna be spiritually, who they wanna be as a person.
TK: It’s interesting that you brought that up because I did want to ask you about the spiritual component to both of the Coltranes’ music. When you play, do you feel that coming through you as well? And if so, how do you tap into that and use it in service of your own music?
LB: The music is in service of the audience. It is in service of the people. I guess I think of music and the arts as a service industry. You can get some rockstar status from it, but you are in service of the people. They need music, music heals, music does something. There are very few people that don’t listen to music. So I see that my purpose is to provide to people in this way with the talent I have. So I’m always thinking, even when I write, I do an album about someone else, like when I did this album, even though it was a tribute to John and Alice Coltrane, I wanted to highlight my guests that people, especially for people who might not know who Ron Carter is. They may not know who Dee Dee Bridgewater is. The younger generation. They don’t connect that to our stuff. So that was the purpose. You shouldn’t have to wait if you’re Reggie Workman to be 82 years old to get an NEA master award. So someone should know who you are. And if people are paying attention to the younger generation, we should highlight that instead of sitting around, you know, taking Instagram pictures of ourselves. My goal was to highlight of course John and Alice Coltrane, but to highlight my guests and how the lineage is being passed down and I wish more people would, you know, I’m playing homage to what’s come before.
TK: Speaking of guests, what attracts you to want to collaborate with someone? What do you hear in another musician that makes you think, “oh, I wanna play with that person.”
LB: It’s their ability, listen. Listen and inspire, right? We can interact in a way that’s new to me and for the guests I’ve picked, I’ve always picked for me, having guests is also a way of having mentors. Having Ron Carter on my album, of course, I’m showing him that I’m willing to do the work and get his approval. And also I’m serious about business and my talent is there, but I’m allowing them space to give their input. if they’re playing something a certain way, I’m open and won’t be so rigid or not willing to learn. This is my project. I have it but I’m open to every guest that comes along and hopeful that I will have a friendship with them for the rest of my life. I pick the guests based on the mentors and the training I want. I’m almost training myself each album, each album, I pick the guests so they can push me to the next level because I’m constantly learning from them while they’re here.
TK: Do you get a sense that a lot of your peers have that same approach? Like “yo, let’s reach out to the older cats and learn some stuff” and have like an intergenerational exchange. Do you get the sense that your peers are on the same tip?
LB: I get the sense that if you were to ask them that question, they would say “absolutely.” Because mentally they understand what it takes, that this is a passed down music. Mentally, we all understand that, but I’m from the school of thought that you put your money where your mouth is. So if you really believe that, then you really would be talking about that. You really would be pushing that. It’s kinda like believing in Black rights, but you ain’t pushing. It’s like “I want equality for all”, but you’re not willing to say something if something goes wrong. So I do believe my generation needs a bit more humility and to realize that now it’s about branding and new albums and how we look and all that stuff, because that’s, that’s the fun part of it. If they [the older generation] weren’t here, I wouldn’t be doing tours. I wouldn’t be going on these adventures. So I do feel that they need to spend a little bit more time focused on the actual music, but it’s hard. They want artists now to be versatile, you gotta be your own web designer, you gotta be your own PR. But within all of that, you can remember the purpose of why you’re doing it so that when you do pass on yourself, you have left a legacy.
TK: Yeah. Thinking about how those demands are made on artists these days where you gotta promote yourself on social media and you have to wear so many hats, how do you stay grounded in your craft?
LB: That is something I’m working on every day, striving. Especially now because the world is very distracting.
TK: Yeah. [laughs]
LB: Trying to focus on the craft and the music and how I’m going to heal and all that kind of stuff when the world is in shambles. So I guess that will come out in the art itself and in its own way. But for me, I’m a more sensitive person. It is a little bit devastating. Like the whole pandemic, now we are at war, but we were already at war with the poor. It’s just a lot going on. And it seems like the theme these days are kind of like we know about it, but we don’t talk about it. So to me it’s challenging and I’ve been fine trying to find a way to get around that, you know, helps conversation with people like you that are great help. But they’re begging for a very aggressive album to come.
TK: [laughs] They trying to push it outta you!
LB: It’s coming. They, they really are doing it.
TK: Ok. One last question that I wanted to ask you. What are your hopes for this tour specifically? Presenting this new music and this legacy of the Coltranes’ music, what do you hope that people take away from seeing you play?
LB: I want ’em to feel something of course and help in whatever ways I can and alleviate some of the stuff going on. I want people to know that Black music is alive and it’s prominent, and it has many variations and forms that influence culture all over the world. And, we have these feelings about race like it’s not a big deal and it’s not a thing, but everywhere I go, every plane I’m on, it’s some variation of Black music. It’s almost like American culture is Black music. So if we could embrace that, maybe we can embrace some of the other things that are going on. The cultural thing being taken out of the music and I think that’s where the healing is. You’re not an audience, you’re kind of like a congregation in a way, you know? Most Black music is community music. So if the world is listening to 80% community music, we have to get some more community-based elements.
Lakecia Benjamin and Persuance pay tribute to The Coltraines this Saturday, March 5th at Arden Gild Hall. Tickets and more information on the show can be found at the XPN Concert Calendar.