Tuesday, March 31, 2020

Attention to Details!

The dynamic young alto saxophonist Lakecia Benjamin is steadily maturing into one of the more exciting musicians on the contemporary scene.  Ms. Benjamin, born in New York City, attended the Fiorello LaGuardia High School for the Performing Arts and went on to the New School. She has performed with Clark Terry and Reggie Workman, appeared onstage with Stevie Wonder and The Roots, toured with Macy Gray, Alicia Keys, and Gregory Porter, and released her debut album on Motema Music in 2012.  That recording and her 2018 "Retox" (Ropeadope Records) showed the saxophonist in modern r'n'b, funk, and dance modes with a touch of jazz yet one could hear Ms. Benjamin's biting tone, sassy attack, and the influence of players such as David Sanborn ad Greg Osby.

For her third album and second for Ropeadope), Ms. Benjamin enlisted the aid of bassist Workman––they set about to create "Pursuance: The Coltranes", a tribute to the legendary saxophonist and his second wife Alice. Over the course of 13 songs and 70 minutes, right from the opening track, "Liberia" which pairs her with alto saxophonist Gary Bartz, to the blazing finale, "Affinity" (with its front line of alto saxophonists Greg Osby and Bruce Williams) this music explores just how powerful the music the couple created in their lifetime. Whether she's playing the themes or digging into her solo, Ms. Benjamin's vision is laser-focused and her sound is often keening, always moving forward.

There are highlights galore.  The saxophonist teams with pianist Bertha Hope on "Alabama" (the saxophonist's musical eulogy to the four young victims of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, AL); supported by the basses of Mr. Workman and Lonnie Plaxico plus the muscular drumming of Darrell Green, the music sears the soul as it did when John Coltrane first recorded the piece in 1963. That segues right into "Acknowlegement" (from "A Love Supreme") with a spoken word intro from Abiodun Oyewole (founder of The Last Poets) and a splendid call-and-response featuring Ms. Benjamin and vocalist Dee Dee Bridgewater.  That jumps directly into "Pursuance" (also from "A Love Supreme"), a high-energy romp with Green and bassist Jonathan Michel pushing the saxophonist and pianist Marc Cary forward.

Six of the 13 pieces in the program were penned by Alice Coltrane including the sweet "Prema" (from her 1978 "Transfiguration" Lp) that features a five-person string section plus the harp of Brandee Younger. The ensemble, powered by Green, Plaxico, and pianist Surya Botofasina (who, as a child, studied at the ashram Ms. Coltrane founded in Los Angeles, CA), keeps the music roiling throughout. Georgia Ann Mudrow speaks the words of "Om Shanti" while Ms. Benjamin's alto wheels around the sound system and bassist/ vocalist Meshell Ndegeocello joins the leader singing the  Buddhist mantra. Botofasina returns for "Turiya and Ramakrishna", a medium tempo ballad that the alto saxophonist creates a prayer-like reading of the theme.  The piano solo starts with rippling, harp-like, figures before moving into a gospel-fueled statement that rises in intensity leading to Ms. Benjamin's sweet, blues-soaked, solo.

The afore-mention "Affinity" (also found on "Transfiguration") is a fiery close to the program with great solos from the three alto saxophonists plus excellent rhythm section fire provided by Green, Radway, and Reggie Workman (who played on the original album). "Pursuance: The Coltranes" is not for the faint-of-heart but for hearts (and minds) that need spiritual and physical cleansing, that need to understand the power of the music that both John and Alice Coltrane created, music that stands the test of time.  Lakecia Benjamin pulls no punches, cuts no corners, and plays with great emotion and dedication.  The album is a giant step forward in her maturation, music that will serve as a blueprint to continued growth as an artist.

For more information, go to www.lakeciabenjamin.com.

Here's the powerful opening track:

Vocalist, composer, educator, and producer Thana Alexa may be best known for her work with groups led by guitarist/ composer Gene Ess and her husband Antonio Sanchez & Migration.  Born in New York City to Croatian parents who moved back home when Ms. Alexa when a young teenager.  While living in Zagreb, she attend the Rock Academy of Music where she switched her attention from violin to voice.  She started college at Northeastern University before transferring to the New School in New York City where Ms. Alexa double-majored in jazz vocal performance and psychology!  She released her debut album "Ode to Heroes" (Harmonia Mundi) in 2015 – what stands out most in her music is the way she combines myriad musical genres to create emotionally rich stories.

"ONA" (self-released) is an often stunning step forward.  The theme of the album is right there in the title (the word translates to "she" from Croatian) – Ms. Alexa is interested in education the listener about the "feminine spirit", about the mysteries, joys, and more that being a 21st Century woman deals with. Along with her husband on drums, percussion, and keyboards, the instrumentalists include Carmen Staaf (piano, Fender Rhodes, keys), Jordan Peters (guitars), and Matt Brewer (acoustic and electric bass). On the title track which opens the album, Ms. Alexa utilizes 10 additional voices including the Rosa Vocal Group plus Nicole Zuraitis, Sofia Rei, Claudia Acuna, and Sarah Elizabeth Charles––the lyrics celebrates the determination of women in times of strife especially in a male-dominated world.

Poet, activist, and spoken work artist Staceyann Chin is featured on "The Resistance", another shout for freedom of spirit.  Before Ms. Chin appears to read an excerpt from her poem "Raise The Roof", the band builds a thumping beat that, at times, resembles the music from "Hamilton".  Ms. Chin's fiery words are framed by equally fiery music that, like her words, rises to a raging finish.  Violinist Regina Carter joins the ensemble for "Pachamama", and her overdubbed violin parts create a powerful counterpoint to the words.  "Set Free" is the first real ballad on the 10-song program: Ms. Staaf's introspective piano intro leads the song in and she is the only accompaniment for Ms. Alexa's fine vocal. The next piece, "You Taught Me", is introduced by Peters's acoustic guitar and he alone frames the vocal for the first verse. The sound and song opens up when the drums and bass come in but hushed quality of the opening never really disappears.  Becca Stevens shows up on "He Said She Said" to share the lead vocal plus add ukulele and 10-stringed charango.  It's a lovely story about love bringing people together from different countries and the sacrifices they make for love.

There are two cover tracks on the album.  "Teardrop", originally written and performed by Massive Attack, opens quietly with Ms Alexa's wordless vocal. As she sings the opening verse, her only accompaniment is her overdubbed voice. The band comes in and the piece picks in intensity until a roaring guitar solo; then it's back to quieter sounds.  The album closes with "Everybody Wants to Rule The World", the Tears for Fears hit from 1985 that has been showing on other jazz albums in the past year.  Here, Ms. Alexa and the band kick the tune quite hard with numerous tempo changes, tremendous drumming, power piano chords, and voices rising out of the mix, and a hard-edged guitar solo that carries the song and the album to its conclusion.

"ONA" is an ode to the power, to the creativity, to the necessity of speaking out, that Thana Alexa wants everyone to understand that this is also important for all women around the world. Originally recorded in early 2017, right after President Trump was elected and sworn-in, the music serves as a reminder of his administration's (and others around the world) desire to push back against the rights women, immigrants, and people of color have striven for through the 20th and early 21st Centuries.  Ms. Alexa points no fingers at any elected officials but her message is clear and her music reflects her passion.  Highly recommended!

For more information, go to www.thanaalexa.com.  

Listen closely to "The Resistance":

Photo: Kyra Kverno
Duchess––Amy Cervini, Hilary Gardner, and Melissa Stylianou–– are girls, okay, ladies, who just want their audiences to have fun when they perform.  They first organized in 2014, recording their self-titled debut that featured their case harmonies, soaring voices, and sparkling arrangements by Oded Lev-Ari.  With The Boswell Sisters as their inspiration, Duchess will lift your spirits and brighten your day.  Plus, they have a cracker-jack band backing them up––Michael Cabe (piano), Jesse Lewis (guitar), Matt Aronoff (bass), and Jared Schonig (drums)––who also join in on the fun

As much fun as their albums can be, it's in-person where Duchess shines.  So, after two studio efforts for Anzic Records, the ladies and their band spent two nights in The Jazz Standard in New York City. Now, with "Live at Jazz Standard", you'll hear what you've been missing. Yes, the songs are great, the harmonies splendid, and the band tight but it's the stage "patter"thats a treat – the "Band Introduction" is flat-out hilarious. That leads into Cy Coben's "It's a Man" (composed for Betty Hutton) which is delightfully (modern) politically incorrect.  The sound of the recording is crisp and clear as you can easily hear all the voices (oh, those sweet harmonies), the snap of the snare drums, the delightful piano interjections, the solid bass lines, and crackling guitar solos.

Photo: Kyra Kverno
The material comes from the 1920s, 30s, and 40s with standards such as "On The Sunny Side of the Street" and "Bei Mir Bist Du Schoen" rubbing shoulders (elbows, these days) with specialities such as "Heebie Jeebies" (recorded in the 1920s by both Louis Armstrong and Ethel Waters) and "Three Little Sisters" (composed in 1944 and recorded by The Andrews Sisters) – the last tune listed also features the group's horn section (the vocalists on kazoos). There's a lovely take on Duke Ellington's "Creole Love Call" (the arrangement comes from Wycliffe Gordon) plus a deeply swinging take on "Chatanooga Choo Choo."

No politics, just fun, when Duchess takes the stage and, if you don't join in on the applause at the end or get off the couch with a smile or even forget for a moment about the social distancing, you're not relaxing enough.  "Live at The Jazz Standard" is wonderfully alive, funny, swinging, and a delight  from start to finish.  Go ahead, indulge!

For more information, go to www.duchesstrio.com.

Here's the gang with a delightful Peggy Lee song:

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