Lakecia Benjamin is a 3x GRAMMY nominated New York-based saxophonist, arranger, composer, and educator. Her music offers a unique meld of R&B, several strains of jazz, and funk. Her warm, resonant tone — that has been compared to Johnny Griffin’s — lends itself to any form of music she chooses to play. In addition to honing her chops early with Clark Terry and later Terri Lyne Carrington, she is also a noted accompanist for vocalists — among them Gregory Porter and Theo Crocker. Retox, her 2012 leader debut, offered a beat-conscious set of soul and funk covers and originals produced by Ben Kane. Benjamin played on “Right on Brotha,” the closing track from Robert Glasper’s Everything’s Beautiful in 2018, a collection of reimagined Miles Davis tracks. Her sophomore date, Rise Up for Ropeadope, contained a Prince-inspired series of original jazz-funk jams. In 2020, she released Pursuance: The Coltranes. The widely acclaimed set contained six tunes each by Alice and John Coltrane, with Benjamin leading a large cast that included former Coltrane sideman Reggie Workman. In 2023 she returned with the star-studded Phoenix. Produced by Carrington, it wed jazz, funky soul, R&B, and hip-hop with an all-star cast. The album brought upon three GRAMMY nominations and universal praise.
Benjamin was born in New York City and raised in Manhattan’s predominantly Dominican Washington Heights neighborhood. She played recorder in grade school and junior high where she also began writing songs and lyrics. She won admission to the Fiorello LaGuardia High School for the Performing Arts. It was there she began playing saxophone in earnest. She picked it up quickly and after graduating joined the renowned jazz program at New York’s New School University.
At New School she studied with jazz veterans including Billy Harper, Workman, Buster Williams, and Gary Bartz. Bartz proved an important mentor. He introduced her to training technical exercise techniques while facilitating her interest in the music of jazz saxophonists including Charlie Parker, John Coltrane, and Jackie McLean. She also played in and performed with Clark Terry‘s Young Titans of Jazz, and some of Workman’s ensembles. While struggling to make ends meet, she won paying gigs with Missy Elliott and Alicia Keys, widening her approach. These influences made their presence known on Benjamin’s Motema leader debut, Retox, in 2010. The unusual set included Benjamin’s Soul Squad band backing a number of singers and rappers in a host of originals and covers, some of which didn’t feature her horn at all. She explained in an interview that she didn’t want to be heard as merely an instrumentalist and soloist, but as an arranger and bandleader, too. She also won opportunities to play and tour with a wide array of artists including former Coltrane drummer Rashied Ali, the David Murray Big Band, vocalist Vanessa Rubin, and guitarist James Blood Ulmer. Her deep jazz roots and reputation for hard yet innovative work, made her a first-call sidewoman, arranger, and horn section leader, and she landed a touring gig with Anita Baker.
In 2015, she was part of the star-studded cast that played on vocalist and arranger Charenee Wade’s Offering: The Music of Gil Scott-HeronandBrian Jackson. In addition to Benjamin, some of its other participants included Marcus Miller, Christian McBride, Malcolm Jamal-Warner, and Lonnie Plaxico. The following year she was invited by pianist Robert Glasper to participate in the sessions for his Miles Davis tribute, Everything’s Beautiful; she appeared with Stevie Wonder and DJ Spinna on the set’s closing track, “Right on Brotha.”
In 2018, Benjamin issued her Ropeadope debut album, Rise Up, leading a large ensemble in a savvy jazz-funk update for the 21st century that included not only players but singers and rappers. In the aftermath, she played dates in and around New York, joined Porter’s road band, worked with Carrington, and was a featured musician and arranger for comedy star Craig Robinson. In addition to performing, Benjamin also became an educator, teaching at Jazz atLincoln Center and at Jazz House Kids.
Benjamin turned heads with her third album — and second from Ropeadope — by leaving R&B and funk by the wayside. May 2020’s Pursuance: The Coltranes is unlike any other tribute project. Its 13 tunes were equally divided between compositions by Alice and John and offered sometimes radical reinterpretations. The outlier was “Going Home.” Composed by Benjamin, its lineup included bass clarinetist Marcus Strickland and string group Rootstock Republic. In addition to Benjamin’s alto were the selectively featured horns of Bartz, Steve Wilson, Greg Osby, and Bruce Williams, harpist Brandee Younger, violinist Regina Carter, bassists Workman, Plaxico, and Me’Shell Ndegéocello, and vocalists Dee Dee Bridgewater, Jazzmeia Horn, Zakiyyah Modeste, and Dudley Perkins. The set was greeted with global acclaim by critics upon release, and subsequently charted at streaming.
In January 2023, Benjamin released Phoenix on Whirlwind Recordings. The 12-track, mostly original set was performed by her septet and produced by Terri Lyne Carrington. Phoenix featured many guests including Dianne Reeves, Georgia Ann Muldrow, Patrice Rushen, Wayne Shorter, Wallace Roney, Sonia Sanchez, and Angela Davis. The album led to three GRAMMY nominations, and universal praise.