Foundry 616, November 13
If this sometimes this felt like an uphill struggle, it was more than justified when they reached the peak. That was when Lakecia Benjamin realised that this band of strangers from a strange land called Australia could actually go with her wherever she wanted to go, both in terms of idiom (from funk to blazing post-Coltrane jazz) and energy.
Initially you sensed a tension emanating from the New York alto saxophonist. Her jetlag and confusion about the musical literacy of an audience on the far side of the earth were compounded by an aloof suspicion of her fellow musicians. In fact in pianist Joel Jenkins, bassist Phil Stack and drummer Paul Derricott she had been gifted a pretty ideal band.
Maybe jetlag prevented her latching on to this sooner, because from the opening Cissy Strut (with its Bo Diddley-echoing swampy beat) they were right with her; Stack already brewing a monstrous solo that made Benjamin seem tame. Then they stormed through a piece dedicated to Maceo Parker, with Jenkins unleashing white-crested waves of organ, before Benjamin engaged Derricott in a furious alto-drums dialogue, and found he had more to say on the subject than perhaps she was expecting.
By the time they played John Coltrane’s anthemic Liberia, she was probably no longer surprised by just how high they could collectively fly. Before this her reedy sound had been so piercing that were it a love-bite it would leave a scar, while it also had a curiously hollowed-out midrange, so it was all shrillness or depth. On Liberia that soprano-like reediness was fattened by some tenor-like grunt, and now Benjamin had a hugely distinctive alto sound to carry her arresting, clarion-call lines. Once she knew the sky was the limit, they even dared visit Coltrane’s fabled A Love Supreme, and the more potent the music grew, the more her personality softened. It was fascinating to witness a musical encounter that began so tentatively and reached such heights.