Lakecia Benjamin: Reflecting the light across space and time

When John Coltrane visited Nagasaki on a Japanese tour in 1966, 21 years after the atomic obliteration, he was not with his band members when they left the train. The panicked promoter found him still on board, absorbed in playing his flute. Asked what he was doing, Coltrane replied, “I’m searching for the sound of Nagasaki.”

John Coltrane. Photo: Chuck Stewart Photography.

Three years earlier Alabama was his searing response to the Ku Klux Klan’s bombing of a Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, that killed four African American schoolgirls. The melody drew on the unique cadences of Martin Luther King’s voice delivering his moving eulogy.

Countless imitators have tried replicate the majesty and grandeur of Coltrane’s tenor saxophone sound, his virtuoso lines and extended harmonies. None has come close. He became jazz’s most towering improviser not because of dissectible technique, but because his playing was the outward manifestation of the bottomless empathy and compassion of the man.

This was what alto saxophonist Lakecia Benjamin heard as a student, courtesy of her mentor, the incendiary alto player Gary Bartz. Discovering the music of both ‘Trane and his wife, Alice, probably began Benjamin’s own journey into the “why?” of making art, rather than the “how?”. She came to play in the band of Rashied Ali, the last of Coltrane’s drummers, and now has made her own ambitious statement, Pursuance: The Coltranes, cannily eschewing any tenor saxophones.

Like the road from Methodist orthodoxy to a more all-encompassing spirituality, that from gifted musician to inspirational genius reflected Coltrane’s commitment to excavating universal truths, and revealing them through music of equally universal reach. In intent he resembled an artist of the Enlightenment more than of his own time, when the smattering of other genuine geniuses – Picasso, Beckett – could not hold back the tide of nihilism that was drowning hope. Coltrane was almost a lone beacon, which is why his ultimate masterpiece, A Love Supreme, is as monumental and timeless as anything created last century. When he came downstairs having finished composing it prior to its recording, he quietly told Alice, “It’s the first time I have everything ready.”

McCoy Tyner and Coltrane. Photo: Joe Alper.

Regardless of its sometimes hurtling velocity, cyclonic energy or exultant ecstasy, Coltrane’s music was always trance-like in effect, as though not just time had slowed, but the speed of light, itself. His brilliant pianist, McCoy Tyner, said, “John felt that music was like the universe… You look up and see the stars, but beyond them are many other stars. He was looking for the stars you can’t see.” As his wife and final pianist, Alice had a front-row seat at Coltrane’s inner wrestle with such profundity, and after his death in ’67 she went on to make her own near-transcendental music.

Tribute albums are inherently dodgy. So you have heroes? Get over them, and build something of your own that’s more than a house of cards. Benjamin has elevated Pursuance: The Coltranes beyond mere tribute status in many ways, including by uniting multigenerational players, among them bassist Reggie Workman, a revered Coltrane alumnus. Others spinning through the firmament include violinist Regina Carter, singers Dee Dee Bridgewater and Jazzmeia Horn, bassist Ron Carter and saxophonists Bartz, Steve Wilson and Greg Osby. She also intermingles Alice’s compositions with John’s, thereby highlighting not just the depth and power of Alice’s own work, but its kinship with the mysticism of her husband’s. Alice’s Prema is a highlight, the mesmeric melody carried by alto, flute, viola and cello, and laced with Brandee Younger’s harp. Benjamin’s piquant alto reaches its own ecstasy, including on a piece by neither Coltrane, the hymn Walk with Me, which, perhaps, most liberated her from their giant shadows and dazzling light.

“I really feel like the world we live in now is kind of like a ‘me, me, me’ show-off world,” Benjamin told me last year, “so people need to take the time to contribute to things feeling good. And once you can do that, then you can move to the next level.” She has. Coltrane would have nodded and smiled.

Pursuance: The Coltranes streams on Spotify & Apple Music; on disc from Birdland Records.