36th Vilnius Jazz Festival. 12-16 October, 2022

Lakecia Benjamin "Phoenix"


Lakecia Benjamin – as
Zaccai Curtis – p
Ivan Taylor – b
Enoch (EJ) Strickland – dr

Phoenix: that’s the title of American saxophonist and composer Lakecia Benjamin’s latest, the fourth, studio album, released earlier this year. It was produced by the multi-Grammy-award winning drum magician Terri Lyne Carrington and features a star-studded line up of specially curated guests Dianne Reeves, Georgia Anne Muldrow, Patrice Rushen, Sonia Sanchez, Angela Davis and jazz giant Wayne Shorter.

The title of the album is metaphorical, according to its author. It is a reference to New York’s slow dying during the pandemic and its return to life, as well as to Benjamin’s own miraculous resurrection following a serious car accident in 2021.

“I was going through the same day over and over – the only thing that reverberated or changed was the level of sadness I kept getting every time I woke up. I’d spend my time dreaming of different mornings in new times. We couldn’t let up. We had to be these beautiful absorbent birds and get to work,” the artist recalls the mood during the pandemic.

Her latest album is an opportunity to highlight her own compositions as well as the creativity, talent and commitment of the female artists she surrounds herself with. Phoenix marks yet another stratospheric rise for an artist who resolutely knows what she wants to say and how to say it, all the while honouring her mentors and the traditions that have come before her.

Born and raised in New York City’s borough of Manhattan, Lakecia Benjamin first picked up the saxophone at Fiorello LaGuardia High School for the Performing Arts and started writing songs and poetry at the age of 13. She later joined the jazz studies program at New York’s New School University.

Lakecia’s musical career began with Latin dance music, and her first gig was in Young Titans of Jazz, a band formed by trumpeter Clark Terry. Early in her career, Terry and Reggie Workman introduced her to opportunities to play and tour with an array of artists such as
Rashied Ali, Christian Mcbride, Gregory Porter, David Murray’s Big Band, Anita Baker, the Count Basie Orchestra, Harry Belafonte, the Duke Ellington Orchestra, Vincent Herring and James “Blood” Ulmer.

Benjamin has performed on four continents, sharing the stage with megastars such as Stevie Wonder, Alicia Keys, Missy Elliot and The Roots. In 2009, the saxophonist performed at the inauguration of US President Barack Obama.

In 2012, Benjamin released her debut album Retox with her band. Lakecia’s dynamic music fuses jazz, hip hop and soul. She has established herself as a crafty traditionalist who remains in step with the rhythms of the young generation. She has also become a sought-after arranger and horn section leader in major projects.

Lakecia’s previous album Pursuance was dedicated to the work of John and Alice Coltrane. In it she has collaborated with the innovators of her generation – Ron Carter, Dee Dee Bridegwater, Regina Carter, Greg Osby, Steve Wilson, Marcus Gilmore, Marcus Strickland and others. Benjamin has paid tribute to the most influential jazz couple of the 20th century in her new album as well.

In 2020, she was voted “Rising Star Alto Saxophonist” in the leading jazz publication Downbeat’s critics poll and was named “Up and Coming Artist of the Year” by the Jazz Journalists Association.

Pianist Zaccai Curtis was not involved in the Phoenix recordings, but he has a nearly 20-year partnership with Benjamin. Since settling in New York in 2005, Curtis has played regularly with Benjamin, Christian Scott, Donald Harrison, Eddie Palmieri, Brian Lynch, Abraham Burton, Ralph Peterson, Avery Sharpe, and many others.

Since the beginning of his career, he has enjoyed success in various jazz competitions. In 2003, he was chosen as a winner of the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP) Young Jazz Composer Competition and each year consecutively through 2006. The following year he was awarded the Connecticut Commission on Culture and Tourism Artistic Fellowship for original composition and in 2017 – the Chamber Music America: “New Jazz Works” grant.

The pianist’s quartet has twice been a US jazz ambassador, having been sent by the US State Department to perform in Bangladesh, Kolkata, Bengaluru, Mumbai, Sri Lanka and the Maldives.

Curtis composes and arranges music for his own quartet and trio, as well as for Little Johnny Rivero, Steve Kroon and Sonido Solar. He has released six albums with his groups and produced Andy Gonzalez’s Grammy-nominated album Entre Colegas. Together with his brother, Zaccai has developed the record label TRRcollective, which is a collective of musicians that produce their own music and release it together.

Curtis has also created a music news app, “The Riff: Music News”, which is available for free on iTunes and Android. He is the author of two jazz textbooks and currently teaches jazz at the University of Hartford and the University of Rhode Island. In 2020, he was voted as a “Rising Star” in the critics poll for Downbeat.

Ivan Taylor has been playing bass since the age of nine and is a virtuoso on both acoustic and electric instruments.

As a schoolboy, the bassist played in the Illinois All-State Jazz Band as well as with Chicago jazz masters Von Freeman and Orbert Davis. Taylor was a star performer at the 2002 Essentially Ellington competition, where he met Wynton Marsalis. This meeting led him to enrol in the Juilliard School of Music.

Taylor soon became a member of the Mulgrew Miller’s Trio and the Wingspan Sextet, touring extensively with these ensembles. He has established himself on the New York scene, collaborating with many of today’s leading improvisers, including Rashid Ali, Louis Hayes, Nicholas Payton, Curtis Fuller, Kenny Garrett, Delfeayo and Wynton Marsalis, Robert Glasper, Take 6, Rodney Jones, Russell Malone, Cyrus Chestnut, Jonathan Baptiste, Diana Ross and Chris Madsen.

Drummer Enoch (EJ) Strickland has been influenced by many of his great colleagues – Elvin Jones, Roy Haynes, Jeff “Tain” Watts, Brian Blade and others. Enoch emphasises that he draws inspiration from many different styles and approaches. “That’s what my true voice is. And I always try to remember that music is fun!” he says.

E.J. Strickland quickly became a fixture on the New York scene, forming long-standing partnerships with Ravi Coltrane, Russell Malone, Manuel Valera, and travelling the world with Reggie Washington, Dave Weiss and Christian Sands. He has also worked with Marsalis, Cassandra Wilson and Herbie Hancock.

Today, he is a composer, bandleader and musician. Over the last ten years he has appeared on more than 60 albums. 

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