There’s nothing quite like a near-death experience to focus one’s attention. Alto saxophonist Lakecia Benjamin’s rapid ascent into jazz’s most visible orbit almost stopped when she lost control of her car driving home to New York City following a 2021 gig in Cleveland.
Her vehicle overturned after pinballing through a clearing of trees, and—had a passing truck driver not pulled her from the wreckage—Benjamin would have been stuck there, unconscious.
Despite a concussion, several broken ribs, a perforated eardrum and a broken jaw, Benjamin was back on the road performing in Europe within three weeks, and she’s been on the move ever since, notwithstanding the lingering aftereffects of the trauma.
“Sometimes my jaw acts up, but I play pretty hard,” Benjamin tells me during a recent phone call. “I wasn’t able to move my right arm for eight months, and it still doesn’t have full range of motion. There’s some neurological damage, but people say I’m already that level of crazy.”
Rather than slowing down, the 40-year-old has sped up over the past year, solidifying her status as a dynamic saxophonist, savvy bandleader, thoughtful recording artist and ambitious curator. Last month, Benjamin scored the German Jazz Prize for “best international wind artist.”
Her embrace of leadership roles manifested locally last summer when Monterey Jazz Festival’s Tim Jackson tapped her as a featured soloist with the Monterey Jazz Festival On Tour. This year, Benjamin’s MJF’s artist-in-residence includes coaching and performing with the Next Generation Jazz Orchestra’s high school players.
Benjamin will introduce her new quartet—featuring drummer EJ Strickland, bassist Ivan Taylor and pianist/keyboardist Zaccai Curtis—to the area with a string of performances that includes Kuumbwa Jazz Center. The fiercely swinging group, aptly named Phoenix, will showcase their reimagining of tunes from their new album.
Already deeply engaged in composing material inspired by the experience of being in New York City during the pandemic, she completed composing the tunes in the weeks following the car crash. Produced by drum legend and NEA Jazz Master Terri Lyne Carrington, Phoenix is more than a rebirth. The project captures Benjamin in full flight, surrounded by illustrious guests, including vocalists Dianne Reeves and Georgia Anne Muldrow, poet Sonia Sanchez and activist Angela Davis.
“To almost die in a car crash and come back was just part of it,” Benjamin says. “Everyone had a story, trying to rise during the pandemic. Musicians were talking to each other just for inspiration to go on even when there was no work.”
Benjamin credits Carrington for actively shaping the Phoenix and “collaborating the way I like to collaborate, understanding me and pushing me. It felt like we were able to partner well. I was dragged out of the box of what I thought I should be doing. With all of my guests contributing, it was like, you need to step it up a little.”
In many ways, the musician seized high ground with her 2020 breakthrough, Pursuance: The Coltranes, which celebrates the music and legacy of saxophonist John Coltrane and his wife, pianist/harpist Alice. Already a standout player, Benjamin was voted the 2020 Downbeat Critics Poll’s “Rising Star Alto Saxophonist” and the Jazz Journalists Association’s “Up and Coming Artist of the Year.” And it’s not just jazz fans who’ve been taking note. Benjamin has performed with artists such as Stevie Wonder, Alicia Keys, the Roots and Macy Gray.
Her new quartet encompasses a large expanse of the Black music continuum, starting with Zaccai Curtis, who’s been slinging grooves at the highest level since he broke in with New Orleans sax master Donald Harrison Jr. two decades ago (Curtis’ label, Truth Revolution Records, recently released Harrison’s latest record, Congo Square Suite). Curtis built his keyboard chops by playing funk and fusion with drummer Cindy Blackman. With Benjamin, he’s been calibrating the blend between acoustic post-bop searching and soaring new jack soul.
“Her music represents both sides of her talent. It’s her own vision, and having EJ Strickland on drums is perfect because he understands both sides of things,” Curtis explains.
Benjamin isn’t just taking charge of the bandstand. Next month, a year’s worth of work comes together at the 40th Burlington Jazz Festival. It’s her debut as an artistic director, and she threw herself into the work with typical abandon. Much like her own music, the roster reflects a wide array of kindred idioms, from vocalists Sarama Joy, Georgia Anne Muldrow and Dee Dee Bridgewater to pianist/activist Samora Pinderhughes and Afro-futurist pioneers Sun Ra Arkestra.
“The storyline I want, the message, is that this music is broad,” Benjamin tells me. “We’ve got multi-generational musicians from several branches, including musicians from Burlington [Vermont]. I wanted people to see there are talented people here. It’s this really weird moment where festivals are all purist or straight pop and hip-hop. I should be able to have the Sun Ra Arkestra and Samara.”
Lakecia Benjamin & Phoenix perform Monday, June 5, at 7pm at Kuumbwa Jazz, 320 Cedar St., Santa Cruz. $36.75/$42; $21/students. kuumbwajazz.org