Lakecia Benjamin is the picture of fiery resilience on 'Phoenix'
Shots ring out. Sirens wail. Upon arrival on alto saxophonist Lakecia Benjamin’s fourth studio album, Phoenix, we are thrown immediately into unsettling territory. These dangerous sounds are emblematic of struggles on both a personal and global level. Benjamin is painting a visceral portrait of the emergency scene after a catastrophic car accident she survived in 2021. On a wider lens, the sirens and gunshots represent issues like racism, the gun epidemic, the pandemic, inequality and poverty.
But this ominous opening sets the tone for a story of eventual healing, transformation, resilience and rebirth. Like the mythological phoenix, we rise to overcome whatever trials and tribulations we face collectively or individually. Cutting through the cacophony and alarms on that opening track, “Amerikkan Skin,” is the voice of civil rights activist and author Angela Davis. She delivers a clarion call of sorts, reciting excerpts from her Revolution Today speech: “Revolutionary hope resides precisely among those Women who have been abandoned by history… (and are now standing up and making their demands heard.) I truly believe… that this is the era of Women.”
This ushers in another major thematic backbone to the album: highlighting pioneering women who blazed trails in their respective fields. Many of these women might not have gotten the recognition they deserved in the past. Here, they are spotlighted and honored, while simultaneously serving in supporting roles throughout the album.
One of the leading torchbearers working to undo the plague of underrepresentation amongst women in the industry is Terri Lyne Carrington. This drummer, composer and educator’s latest Grammy-winning project, New Standards, Vol. 1, is devoted to championing the music of oft-overlooked women composers. Long a mentor and bandleader to Benjamin, Carrington steps here into the role of producer.
Following “Amerikkan Skin,” we move into different stages of Phoenix’s metamorphosis. Shedding the skin and entering into the healing and transformation period are songs like “New Mornings” and the title track, which features Georgia Anne Muldrow on synths and vocals. Encouraging us to “turn the page, and start anew” is the easygoing “Mercy,” with the warm, welcoming vocals of Dianne Reeves.
Near the album’s midpoint are two selections featuring a leading figure of the Black Arts Movement — longtime Temple University professor and Philadelphia’s first poet laureate, Sonia Sanchez. “Peace Is a Haiku Song” is also the title of a work she did in collaboration with Mural Arts program Philadelphia. Sanchez believes haiku is a vehicle for peace and urban transformation. Much like the halfway point of the Phoenix process, this song is stripped down to bare minimum. The only musical accompaniment to Sonia’s poetic recitation is bassist Ivan Taylor, who expertly punctuates the poet’s self-proclaimed “ordained stutterer” delivery.
The final stage in this process is one of joy and celebration, as the phoenix has risen. Patrice Rushen’s “Jubilation,” which first appeared on her album Before The Dawn, perfectly encapsulates the excitement of this release.
While Phoenix is punctuated with special guest features, by artists as prominent as saxophonist and composer Wayne Shorter, the leader’s fiery alto is what dominates the saga — fluttering at times like the wings of a bird about to take flight, rising at other times to soar high. After surviving tragedy, Benjamin reemerged strong and propulsive, reaching new heights and blazing trails for those to come.
Phoenix is available now on Whirlwind Recordings. Lakecia Benjamin will appear at the Kimmel Center on April 8 as part of the Monterey Jazz Festival on Tour.