Remembering jazz innovator Casey Benjamin - WXPN | Vinyl At Heart
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The contemporary jazz multi-instrumentalist Casey Benjamin passed away at just 45 last week, and the loss of this endlessly innovative man has shaken the music community. In an Instagram tribute, drummer Nate Smith wrote that he “set a standard on what it means to be a truly genre-defying musician with a big imagination and a one-of-one sound.” Philly pianist Luke Carlos O’Reilly remembered his “versatility that not many possess” but added “his playing wasn’t even my favorite thing about him. He was just a super amazing person.”

Benjamin grew up in the vibrant community of 1980’s South Jamaica, Queens, where he learned from artists such as Weldon Irvine, Barry Harris, and Melvin Gibbs. He soaked up everything from bebop and blues to rap, soul, and far-out fusion. You could hear it all in his playing, which rejected categorization and opened doors for new generations of musicians. He was both a top-tier saxophonist and keyboardist, but not just that: Benjamin was also a producer, a singer, and a boundary-breaking musical thinker always on the futuristic cusp of new sounds. And he was equally adept in all music settings.

He became one of Q-Tip’s most trusted collaborators and collaborated with just about everyone: Beyonce, John Legend, Kendrick Lamar, Nas, Common, Lady Gaga,, Anderson .Paak, and Arcade Fire.  Before his death, Benjamin was still working on his debut solo album and it remains unclear if listeners will get to hear that work. Music lovers can celebrate the life of this underrated titan through the plentiful and powerful work he has left behind. Below, we take a look at some of the myriad memorable moments from an extraordinary life.

Grover greets a future great on television

In this WNBC clip, Benjamin is a mild-mannered 16 year-old student at LaGuardia High School who had already been playing saxophone for six years. You can see his awestruck appreciation when meeting an instrumental icon, Philly’s own Grover Washington Jr. “Any questions for Grover?,” the host asks Benjamin. “What do you think about when you write your music?,” he asks. It’s evident that Washington’s answer – emphasizing storytelling, mood, and texture – strikes a chord in the young man, who lights up with excitement – and then gets a chance to play “Winelight” with the legend himself. After the premature deaths of both men, it’s a gut-wrenching performance yet it’s a testament to Benjamin’s preternatural skill at a young age.

Grover Washington and Casey Benjamin on WNBC

A new path to musician nirvana 

Pianist/producer Robert Glasper is likely the most important jazz musician of the last two decades, yet the the Robert Glasper Experiment still remains the most exciting of his various projects. Benjamin and Glasper first met as students at the New School and bonded instantly over a shared love for Herbie Hancock. Like their idol, they didn’t just love jazz – they were steeped in its tradition and plenty capable of flexing their bebop chops. Yet they also shared a distaste for the limits gatekeepers and their more close-minded peers placed upon the genre. Along with drummer Chris Dave and the Philly bassist Derrick Hodge, they drew from the virtuosic heart of gospel, J Dilla’s brilliant beatmaking, and the groove-minded masterworks of neo-soul to create a totally new sound. One of their most unexpected tracks is a reimagining of Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” At first glance: what could be further from jazz? Upon further thought, many of the genre’s most enduring classics (think “Summertime” or “My Favorite Things”) were not written by jazz artists but found new life through mind-blowingly creative reinterpretations by black musicians reshaping old tunes. Glasper first recorded his Nirvana cover for his Black Radio II album but this live KEXP performance is even better. Singing through his keytar and vocoder, Benjamin is the true heart of both, morphing a grunge anthem into a heart-breaking ballad that sounds beamed in from the post-genre future. Watch the full KEXP performance here – it also includes a cover of Michael Jackson’s “I Can’t Help It” and a performance of the Grammy-winning Bilal collab “All Matter.”

Robert Glasper Experiment - Smells Like Teen Spirit (Live on KEXP)

Eternal vibes

The incredible vibraphonist Stefon Harris was one of Benjamin’s key collaborators. Together, they released several albums with the fusion group Blackout, backed by drummer Terreon Gully. In 2010, Harris joined the Robert Glasper Experiment for a tribute to Roy Ayers, who sometimes performed with Benjamin. Everyone is at the peak of their powers here. Glasper’s piano playing switches from astonishingly technical to grandly gorgeous. Chris Dave’s drumming is explosively exciting, fresh with funky rhythmic inventiveness. Harris plays the vibes with thrilling intensity and Hodge binds it all together with his bass. Still, it’s Benjamin who threatens to steal the show twice, first with his signature keyboard/vocoder work, stretching his voice into new dimensions. Midway through, he picks up his soprano sax and rips a scorching solo reminiscent of Coltrane. “Casey was one of the most gifted and talented beings ever,” Glasper told WRTI’s Nate Chinen after his passing. “He was the epitome of what it means to be unique and one of a kind. The true meaning of a genius at his craft. There is no Robert Glasper Experiment without him.” Watch this ten minute performance and you can see why.

G.B.T.V. CultureShare ARCHIVES 2010: ROBERT GLASPER EXPERIMENT..#4

An Endless Array of Instruments and Ideas

“I always liked contrast. Contrast to me is beauty – always think outside of the box”, says Benjamin in this fascinating four-minute interview. It’s a rare behind-the-scenes look at his impressive array of instruments. Influenced by Hancock and George Duke, Benjamin discusses the difficulty of playing keytar – an often mocked instrument capable of miracles in the right hands. Benjamin’s love for all his instruments is palpable but especially his alto and soprano saxophones. In another interview, Glasper half-jokingly quipped “There’s a lot going on here, Casey has a lot going on – I don’t know what the hell he uses. I’ve been playing with him for years and I have no idea what it is. It’s a lot of stuff – and it sounds really cool.”

Inside The Robert Glasper Experiment Band: Casey Benjamin

For further listening, check out these albums:

Double Booked – Robert Glasper

Black Radio 2 – Robert Glasper

ArtScience – Robert Glasper

Urbanus – Stefon Harris & Blackout

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