Lakecia Benjamin - Retox (2012)

Lakecia Benjamin
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After reviewing or listening to new projects by artists such as Soul Cycle, Esperanza Spalding, Robert Glasper and Gregory Porter, one fact remains inescapable. The days when a contemporary jazz, smooth jazz, jazz-fusion, post post-modern jazz, or whatever label critics place on artists who play improvised music, can get away with releasing an album filled with instrumental version of the latest hot R&B or classic soul tune are officially over.

Actually, it’s been going that way for at least a couple of years as jazz artists seem to be looking to the type of jazz, funk, rock hybrid music that came out starting in the late 1960s and continued being made especially through the 1970s. A few factors are propelling this change. The music industry is undergoing an upheaval just as it was in the late 1960s and 70s as labels consolidated, tastes evolved and technology changed.

After reviewing or listening to new projects by artists such as Soul Cycle, Esperanza Spalding, Robert Glasper and Gregory Porter, one fact remains inescapable. The days when a contemporary jazz, smooth jazz, jazz-fusion, post post-modern jazz, or whatever label critics place on artists who play improvised music, can get away with releasing an album filled with instrumental version of the latest hot R&B or classic soul tune are officially over.

Actually, it’s been going that way for at least a couple of years as jazz artists seem to be looking to the type of jazz, funk, rock hybrid music that came out starting in the late 1960s and continued being made especially through the 1970s. A few factors are propelling this change. The music industry is undergoing an upheaval just as it was in the late 1960s and 70s as labels consolidated, tastes evolved and technology changed.

Veteran jazz musicians like Miles Davis embraced the changes and tried to get ahead of them. He drew the ire of the purists, but today records such as “Bitches Brew” are viewed as classics. Davis and fellow acoustic jazz legends such as Herbie Hancock attracted a bunch of younger players who didn’t run from the room with their hands over their ears when they heard rock, soul and funk music. Those artists made some great fusion records while also lending their talents to R&B artists like Luther Vandross (Marcus Miller).

Young saxophonist Lakecia Benjamin releases her debut album, Retox, in a musical environment that is similar to what existed in the jazz world in the 1970s. It’s harder than ever to hear jazz of any kind on the radio. The recession wreaked havoc on the jazz festival industry. On the flip side, jazz artists appear more willing to explore and incorporate different styles. Benjamin brings the kind of background that  “Young Lion(ess)” contemporaries such as Glasper and Spalding bring to the table.

Benjamin started playing sax at age 12, and soon found herself sharing the stage with the likes of Clark Terry and Reggie Workman. Benjamin refined her R&B and hip-hop chops by working with Stevie Wonder, Alicia Keys, Macy Gray, The Roots and Anita Baker.

It becomes clear that Benjamin is not your father’s smooth jazz saxophonist. Up until Retox, it would be hard to imagine a contemporary jazz saxophonist making a record that was not dominated by track after track of sax solos. Conversely, Benjamin is content to remain in the background on Retox’s vocal cuts. Considering the strong vocalists making guest appearances on Retox that proves to be a wise decision.

Tracy Nicole and Amp Fiddler give the appropriate energy to the Memphis Horn styled duet “Keep Talking.” China Blac fuses the church house and the roadhouse in the ultra-funky kiss off tune “Jump and Shout,” while Maya Azucena’s phrasing and intonation infuse the mid-tempo R&B tune “Smile” with a jazzy sensibility. Benjamin and the other musicians have ample opportunity to showcase their creativity on Retox’s instrumental numbers. Her energy makes “Maceo” a worthy tribute to James Brown’s best-known sideman. Benjamin honors Wonder with her instrumental version of “Don’t You Worry ‘Bout a Thing.”

Benjamin remains the one thing that connects the vocal and instrumental tracks on Retox. With the exception the Stevie Wonder cover, Benjamin wrote and arranged every song on Retox.  Benjamin’s song writing, arranging and choices of vocalists bring a vibrancy to Retox that will prevent this genre bending record from being placed on the smooth jazz elevator music rack. Recommended

By Howard Dukes

 

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