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With a ton of jazz veterans and soul luminaries on her resumé, it’s no surprise Lakecia Benjamin comes across as assured and confident in her abilities and her message on Phoenix, her fourth album as a leader. Drawing strength both from an obvious love of the Coltrane family (both saxophone innovator John and spiritual jazz genius Alice) and the wide-open ears of someone who doesn’t live in the past, Benjamin spins a resonant, grooving song cycle, twelve songs covering twelve months of rediscovering creativity in the face of the pandemic. “Jubilation” and the title track use a lush but rhythmic backdrop for her singing sax lines, while “New Mornings” and “Rebirth” tread more intangible, refined terrain. Over and over she makes it clear that she’s using her solos as communication, with improvisation as a vehicle for what she has to say, rather than tweaking jazz nerds’ hunger for virtuosity. Benjamin’s invited some notable names to accompany her, from keyboardists Georgia Anne Muldrow and Patrice Rushen and singer Dianne Reeves to poet Sonia Sanchez and civil rights activist Angela Davis. But even when Benjamin turns the spotlight to her guests, she’s still surrounding them with music of strength and character, making Phoenix a powerful example of an artist using the tools borrowed from her influences to create her own objet d’art.
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