Lakecia Benjamin Gathers Jazz Royalty on Tribute to John & Alice Coltrane Via ‘Pursuance: The Coltranes’ (ALBUM REVIEW)

This is saxophonist/bandleader Lakecia Benjamin’s third release, a truly masterwork, Pursuance: The Coltranes. Benjamin gathered an esteemed roster of jazz royalty on the date, which encompasses some 40 musicians in the credits. Recognizable names include three generations of jazz with Ron Carter, Gary Bartz, Regina Carter, Keyon Harold, Marcus Strickland, Brandee Younger, Dee Bridgewater, Meshell Ndgecello, Steve Wilson, Marc Cary, Jazzmeia Horn and Reggie Workman, who played with both John and Alice and proved invaluable in recruiting the stellar lineup and serving as a mentor on the project.  

This passage from John Murph’s detailed liners is especially informative. Benjamin divided her guests into three generational categories. 20-40, 50-70, 70-90. “Each group has relevance to me,” she explains. For instance, the musicians in the 70-90 group were the elders, who’ve played with John or Alice – or both. The musicians in the 50-70 group were the musicians who most inspired her when she was getting into jazz. “I saw these musicians in DownBeat magazine,” Benjamin says. “I transcribed their solos. Some were my teachers as well. The ones in the 20-40 group are my peers, who are also innovative bandleaders. I wanted to make sure all the guests respect the jazz tradition. These are game-changers, pushing boundaries, and influencing the next generation.”

Benjamin does have a core unit as the foundation for the many guests. Lonnie Plaxico(bass), Darrell Green (drums) and Sharp Radway (piano) are generally present throughout with some exceptions. Benjamin consistently plays alto (not tenor or soprano as John did), demonstrating fiery energy, full tone, melodic and harmonic invention; and above all, passionate fervor in her playing.

There’s a vocal element to John’s “Acknowledgement” from A Love Supreme where Abiodun Oyewole of The Last Poets says, “John Coltrane was a vessel, taking us to the house of god, he spoke to god in the language god knew, in the language of sound.” Benjamin takes the spiritual side of the Coltranes, especially Alice, to heart with these selections, seven from John and six from Alice. She represents John with “Liberia,” “Central Park West,” “Syeeda’s Flute Song,” “Spiral,” “Alabama,” “Acknowledgement” and “Pursuance.”  You’ll note that several of these are from his Atlantic period while the latter three are from what is considered is more spiritual side on the Impulse! label. Alice compositions are “Prema,” “Om Shanti,” “Turiya and Ramakrishna,” and “Affinity.” “Walk With Me,” and “Going Home” are gospel tunes associated with Alice. Benjamin crafts these tunes with 2020 arrangements, putting some interesting twists on several. 

Given that Benjamin is a saxophonist it’s rather surprising that she has a stronger affinity for Alice’s music. That traces to an invitation from noted funky multi-instrumentalist Georgia Anne Muldrow to visit Alice Coltrane’s Sai Anantam Ashram, the now permanently closed spiritual center in the Santa Monica Mountains in California in the early 2000s. The bond between Benjamin and Muldrow becomes musically realized on the celestial interpretation of “Om Shanti” that features Muldrow’s vocals and Ndgecello’s imaginative bass line. 

Other Alice highlights include Benjamin’s bluesy take on “Turiya and Ramakrishna,” which also features explosive piano from Surya Botofasina. On “Prema” Benjamin employs a cast of ten including a string quartet that plays a kind of counterpoint to the slight hip-hop groove she creates. The string quartet also plays in a stunning version of “Going Home” with Brandee Younger appropriately playing the harp in the vein of Alice while Marcus Strickland contributes bass clarinet. Regina Carter introduces the melody with her signature violin, before Benjamin journeys forth with fervor, building her solo around the hymn’s enduring strains. The disc’s most avant-garde take is the closer ‘Affinity” where Benjamin is joined by fellow altoists Greg Osby and Bruce Williams while Radway dances all over the piano and Workman fills the bottom.

Now to the John material. “Liberia,” her favorite John Coltrane tune, opens. A regal rubato gives way to swing as Benjamin and legendary altoist Gary Bartz engage in heated dialogue. Vocalist Jazzmeia Horn channels Benjamin’s R&B arrangement of “Central Park West” over some soulful organ from Chris Rob. Ron Carter and trumpeter Keyon Harrold join Benjamin for a blistering take on “Syeeda’s Flute Song” while Steve Wilson forms another alto duet on “Spiral.” Carter and Workman are the only two musicians to have played with both Coltranes. Benjamin captures John’s spiritual side in the two installments from A Love Supreme. (“Alabama” is a brief rendition, practically serving as an interlude but does feature both Plaxico and Workman on bass). Dee Bridgewater sings lyrics she wrote while Oyewold delivers spoken word on “Acknowledgment.” “Pursuance” features pianist Marc Cary in the vein of the late McCoy Tyner.

Benjamin beautifully channels the spirit of the Coltranes, demonstrating versatility and respect for jazz tradition that is revealing considering her main gig is leading her own soul-based band, Lakecia Benjamin and Soul Squad, reflecting the music of James Brown, Maceo Parker, Sly & the Family Stone and the Meters as well as classic jazz. This recording will certainly have many mainstream jazz critics and fans taking greater notice. 

<P>Coincidentally, one of today’s premier altoists, Kenny Garrett did a tribute to John Coltrane with his Pursuance: The Music of John Coltrane that won the 1997 DownBeat readers poll for Jazz Album of the Year. Accompanying Garrett were Brian Blade, Pat Metheny, and Rodney Whitaker. Only three songs from that project – “Liberia,” “Alabama” and “Pursuance” are on Benjamin’s album. Other acclaimed tributes to John include (for the benefit of our readers):

  • Blues for Coltrane: A Tribute to John Coltrane – 1987 – McCoy Tyner
  • Remembering John – 1991 – McCoy Tyner
  • Dedicated to You: Kurt Elling Sings the Music of Coltrane and Hartman – 2009
  • Four for Trane 1964 – Archie Shepp
  • Love Devotion Surrender – 1973 – Carlos Santana and John McLaughlin
  • Homage to John Coltrane – 1987 – Dave Liebman
  • Joy: The Music of John Coltrane – 1993 – Dave Liebman
  • John Coltrane’s Meditations – 1997 – Dave Liebman
  • Compassion: The Music of John Coltrane – 2017 – Dave Liebman and Joe Lovano
  • For Trane 1995 (originally 1972) – Johnny Hartman

This is the first tribute this writer is aware of that focuses on both John and Alice exclusively. Benjamin will likely find similar success to Kenny Garrett’s album of a similar name, resulting in top places on “Best Of” lists and readers polls. Hopefully this ambitious project is accorded it’s due.

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