Jazz Album of the Week: Lakecia Benjamin Explores the Musical Union of John and Alice on Pursuance

Jul 6, 2020

July 6, 2020. Trained in jazz and forged in funk, alto saxophonist Lakecia Benjamin grew up hooked on Coltrane—Alice Coltrane. A friend introduced her to the music of John’s second wife, and she became enthralled. It wasn’t until some time later that Benjamin learned who John Coltrane was and that he could play a little, too.

Benjamin’s latest, Pursuance: The Coltranes is a celebration of both Coltranes’ individual careers and also the union that drove both artists both musically and spiritually. There are 13 tunes here, seven from John’s canon, six from Alice’s.

Benjamin, interesting because she made what might be seen as the reverse commute to John Coltrane’s music (i.e. arriving there via Alice), manages eclecticism without affectation and dresses up older tunes in modern garments without too much affectation or self-indulgence. This is a tough line for young musicians to straddle and should be applauded.

Though Benajmin had some help here.

Pursuance is like a giant jazz family reunion, with living representatives from every generation that can still produce them. Bassists Ron Carter and Reggie Workman (also a co-producer) are two of the few still around to have played with both John and Alice—they both appear here. As do about 40 others— vets like Gary Bartz (alto sax), Dee Dee Bridgewater (vocals), Marc Cary (piano) and Regina Carter (violin) and younger lions and lionesses like Keyon Harrold (trumpet), Bruce Williams (saxophone), Jazzmeia Horn (vocals) and Brandee Younger (harp).

The multi-instrumentalist and virtuoso Marcus Strickland is in there representing the Gen Xers and, as always, playing his backside off.

I’ve always loved Strickland’s turns on bass clarinet, and we’ve got one here that shines, on “Going Home,” a Benjamin arrangement of an old gospel tune that Alice Coltrane recorded on 1973’s Lord of Lords.

Here, it plays as a jazz suite and glistens with Baroque maximalism.

From start to finish, it’s a beautifully re-constructed and emotionally stirring tribute to one of Alice Coltrane’s most lasting arrangements. Sharp Radway (piano) and Regina Carter (violin) play the iconic and magisterial overture in unison; it is divine in a supernatural, out-of-this-world kind of way. If you’re one for nihilistic tendencies, listen to the opening 90 seconds here and then check back with me; you might go from thinking everything is nothing to everything is everything.

After the opening thunderclap, there’s a second, softer sub-introductory passage with Strickland, on bass clarinet, playing a high-low game with clarinet. Then it’s Brandee Younger’s turn to introduce the recognizable theme that, here, bears no rust. Regina Carter’s harmonic presence, in concert with Younger here, feels ordained by something bigger than us; Benjamin’s alto saxophone weaps tears of redemptive joy. Ultimately, though, it’s Strickland’s bass clarinet holding everything together here, like that indispensable dollop of sour cream in your favorite burrito.

I only wish “Going Home” had been made the album’s closer; that’s where it belongs in my estimation. It’s too emotionally powerful to be buried in the middle of the album as it is. That said, it’s not always bad strategy to put a heavy hitter at the end of the batting order.

The tune that does serve as the album’s closer is “Affinity,” an Alice composition from 1978’s Transfiguration. Bruce Williams and Greg Osby open things here with the kind of rarely heard alto saxophone duet that makes one wonder why we don’t hear two altos playing in harmony more often. They give way to Workman whose playing continues to live up to his name’s most literal reading. Reggie’s doing work here, but it’s no labor; the elder statesman plays at pace with ease and drives and centers the band over the course of a complex arrangement more redolent of late-stage Coltrane, the explorer.

The take on “Central Park West” here plays like a collaboration between the ghost of Grover Washington, Jr. and the folks who put together The Hamilton Mixtape. This R&B -heavy arrangement of one of John Coltrane’s most celebrated compositions might be jarring to purists, but I think it’s a heck of a lot of fun… for the most part.

Benjamin’s sax parts occupy a territory bordering on smooth jazz, which, again, just a word of warning to the bebop/hard-bop purists out there. That said, Benjamin’s solo work exhibits refined technique and mature sensibility that’s grounded in melody but prepared to go astral when the situation calls for it.

Stick around to the end of the tune so as not to miss an extended scat solo from one of the brightest young stars in vocal jazz, Jazzmeia Horn.

The take here on “Acknowledgment,” John’s enduring tour de force from 1964’s A Love Supreme also features extended scatting, this time from the incomparable Dee Dee Bridgewater. The scatting—as opposed to original lyrics from Bridgewater which are said to have been part of the original concept for this arrangement—works out even better. “Acknowledgment,”—and the whole of A Love Supreme, more generally—has always been thought of as John Coltrane’s musical conversation with a higher power. Sung lyrics, however well intentioned, run the risk of being superfluous, of not letting the horn speak for itself. The end result here is the right amount of compromise; Bridegwater compliments beautifully but never overwhelms.

That’s really the hallmark of an album like this, which takes some daring approaches to music Coltrane fans hold in the highest esteem. While Benjamin rarely mimics, she never cheapens nor distorts the original intent of the Coltranes. In Benjamin’s hands, the Coltranes’ work continues to breathe and grow.

The first cut, John’s “Liberia” is probably the most faithfully executed on the album, with veteran saxophonist Gary Bartz throwing down the gauntlet on a take that swings hard.

For a through line connecting social movements past and present, there’s Benjamin’s take on John Coltrane’s “Alabama,” which was written in the wake of the infamous bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama that killed four young girls in 1963. Benjamin’s saxophone here is more than mournful; it is anguished and tormented and righteously indignant.

“Om Shanti” is the other side of the same coin—the post-cathartic side that seeks peace and unity. Featuring Georgia Anne Muldrow (vocals) and Meshell Ndegeocello (bass), we’re also treated to old audio snippets of Alice Coltrane speaking to followers at her since-closed Southern California ashram.

Spirituality courses through the entire album. It doesn’t always cohere; it’s more like a giant buffet with some eastern religion here, some western there.  Benjamin succeeds by presenting the material in a way that educates but doesn’t proselytize, on an album that’s clearly ambitious but always tasteful and respectful of its source material. A fine, fine effort from a rising star aided in no small measure by an overwhelming assemblage of legends and legends-to-be.