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Saxophonist Lakecia Benjamin on creating a mood and facing your fears

SCOTT DETROW, HOST:

Last year saxophonist Lakecia Benjamin had an idea- Take the songs from her most recent album, "Phoenix," reimagine them, and then play them live for a studio audience. This was not exactly a long simmering idea. It was almost, in the grand style of jazz, kind of improv.

LAKECIA BENJAMIN: I came up with the whole recording session probably three days before.

DETROW: Wow.

BENJAMIN: And then I just called all the legends. I said, hey, you guys feel like jamming? They were, like, completely like, oh, I've been waiting for you to call, Kecia. Let's do it.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DETROW: Legends like trumpeter Randy Brecker and guitarist John Scofield - it was a bold move, but bold can describe a lot of Benjamin's career. Years ago, when the gigs were not as plentiful, she tried to stage crash Prince concerts until Prince took note and just invited her to play with his band.

Today, Benjamin is one of the most innovative saxophonists in jazz. She got three Grammy nominations last year for "Phoenix," and now the gigs are plentiful, including, the other day, one at NPR's Tiny Desk as we celebrate Black Music Month.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DETROW: I sat down with Benjamin after her set. She had just played four songs from that new live album, which is called "Phoenix Reimagined." It'll be coming out this summer. We started by talking about her songwriting process.

BENJAMIN: Usually, first, I think of the mood. Do I want to uplift people? Do I want to create a safe space? Do I want to create a happy space? Do I want to - what is the energy of the song? And then from there, I'll go, OK, listen. I want - you know, we're mosh pitting this out.

DETROW: Yeah.

BENJAMIN: Then I just start - OK, the drums - I start on, like, my computer - start programming the beat how I want it to be. Then I start with the bass line. And then sometimes, it comes, and I say - I hear the words first. And then I say, OK, these words - like, "Mercy" is a song we did. That's a song about just hoping that humanity can feel for each other and have some more empathy and have some - an ability to put yourself in someone else's shoes.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DETROW: It feels like a lot of the performance you just did felt like happy space to me or felt like energetic space for sure. This is definitely...

BENJAMIN: Yeah.

DETROW: ...One of the most energetic Tiny Desks that I've seen in a very long time.

BENJAMIN: Oh, OK. Yeah, that's kind of my vibe. My vibe is just to give people a place that - you spend your dollars, you spend your money, or you just spend anything. Give people a place that - if you want to dance, dance free. If you want to be on your phone at the time, video of me - be on your phone. But do what makes you feel happy and feels to be your authentic self, and I'm here to help you with that space. I feel like we need to go back to a time where artists kind of care about the audience...

DETROW: Yeah.

BENJAMIN: ...Where it's not my job to just be a rock star. It's my job to kind of be a place for people to have an outlet.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DETROW: Talking about that three-day period where you came up with the idea for "Phoenix Reimagined" - tell me, what were you initially trying to do? - because your last album, "Phoenix," got such great recognition. It was such a big moment. Going back and rethinking the same album is an interesting choice.

BENJAMIN: Yeah. You know, it actually usually takes me at least two years between an album to get into the new space for a new story and everything. And I just feel like because that year, 2023, had so many life-changing experiences for me with awards and accolades and just - I wanted to go back to the basics of what the music was before I moved forward again. Like, what brought me here? Play with some people that kick my butt, get me back into the grind. That's kind of why I made the song "Let Go," just to remind myself, let go of the expectations people have for you. And if you get an award, you get it. If you don't get an award, you don't get it.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

BENJAMIN: But the people are what the music is here for, so don't stop my, I guess, searching for that thing, and I got so inspired by it that I just called everybody. I said, let's go, man. And I don't have a live album. So I was like, let's get a - people something to hear how we really get it out.

DETROW: Yeah.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BENJAMIN: Let go.

LAKECIA BENJAMIN AND MELODIE RAY: Let go.

BENJAMIN: Let it flow.

LAKECIA BENJAMIN AND MELODIE RAY: Let it flow.

BENJAMIN: Let it glow.

LAKECIA BENJAMIN AND MELODIE RAY: Let it glow.

BENJAMIN: It's all for show and hopes and empty jokes.

DETROW: Which gets to such - the thing that everyone says about jazz, that it is what it is when it's live. Like, what, to you - how do you explain the difference between a live jazz performance and listening to something that, you know, you maybe put together over the course of a week in a studio? Like, how do you explain...

BENJAMIN: Yeah.

DETROW: ...That difference?

BENJAMIN: I guess in the studio, you're trying to, like, perfect something that will exist forever, something that will sonically hold weight and value forever. And live, you're - you are mastering the experience. This is a interaction between them and you, you know? So it can change each time. It can grow. It flows a little differently. You have the space that - if we change the people in this room, we change now the show, whereas it - on the studio recording, you're like, this is the perfect version, and that's what it is forever, you know?

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

LAKECIA BENJAMIN AND MELODIE RAY: Let's go searching and clinging to your fears. Deep down in your mind, do the empty broken thoughts linger? Will you pay to pray to keep the limelight? It doesn't sit right 'cause folks in suits - they keep you so uptight.

So I wanted an album to show that we are still kind of growing and rising and figuring out who we are, but we're in a transitional season. So I wanted people to see this is our new space of where we are. And if you thought it was over, nah.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DETROW: I did want to ask about something that's gotten a lot of attention with you, and that was that really scary car crash a few years ago that you got into coming back from a gig. You broke your jaw, which, as a...

BENJAMIN: Yeah.

DETROW: ...Saxophonist, I feel like is an existential problem in addition to just being a really scary health situation.

BENJAMIN: Yeah, totally.

DETROW: How much did that affect the music that you composed and played since?

BENJAMIN: Completely...

DETROW: Yeah.

BENJAMIN: ...Because we were - you know, that was when the pandemic, I guess you could say, was kind of raging, and they were canceling all the shows. So they had, in the summer, a lot - all of these shows.

So we had kind of, like, two or three a week, and I was driving back from Ohio. And I'm listening to the song. I'm jamming. I'm vibing. The sunrise is coming up. It was so beautiful. And the next thing I know, I'm covered in blood. And someone is, like, trying to drag me - you know, to drag me through the mud. In that instance, I didn't know - was I going to live? I was in so much pain.

Cops are coming. Ambulance is coming - I'm kind of fading in and out of consciousness. I remember asking the ambulance guy, am I going to be OK? And he told the driver to drive faster. And I was like, ooh, pass out.

DETROW: Yeah.

BENJAMIN: You know, so...

DETROW: That's not a good answer.

BENJAMIN: Yeah, you go from, like, OK, am I going to live? OK, yeah, I am. Am I going to play the saxophone again? Yeah, I am. Then you go, OK, am I gonna make music again? All the music to Phoenix is coming to my head nonstop. And then you go to three Grammy nominations, you know?

So I just wanted people to see, like, what happens if the odds go completely against you, and you don't stop, you know? Don't decide for yourself your destiny. Let God decide where you go, as long as - and you do the work to keep going and let the universe open the doors.

DETROW: Seems like that is really, really important to you - this idea of having a dream and keeping working at it and pushing forward, even if it feels like you're hitting some resistance and just saying, you know what? I don't - that doesn't matter. I'm just going to keep doing it.

BENJAMIN: Yeah. I kind of feel like whenever I feel fear, I know it's the right road. Every time I do something that's impossible and it happens, you get a little stamp of, like, oh, that kind of worked. Every time, you know, when I used to jump on Prince's stage, I got the gig.

DETROW: Yeah.

BENJAMIN: You know, so what's better - to wonder and sit and regret, or to do something? I always push my students, too, to go somewhere. I say, hey, just come with me. And when it happens, they go, it worked out. I'm like, yeah. What if you push a little further? You know, you build up a kind of self esteem that is unmatchable. You know, that's what we want little girls and little boys to know - that it's all possible in a world that's full of darkness.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DETROW: Lakecia Benjamin, thank you so much.

BENJAMIN: Thank you, man.

DETROW: And you can see her entire Tiny Desk performance, along with all of the other Black Music Month performances throughout June, at npr.org.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Ashley Brown is a senior editor for All Things Considered.
Scott Detrow is a White House correspondent for NPR and co-hosts the NPR Politics Podcast.
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