LAKECIA BENJAMIN CHANNELS ALICE COLTRANE’S SPIRIT
By Piotr Orlov
March 13, 2020
Originally, AFROPUNK’s purpose in premiering “Om Shanti,” saxophonist Lakecia Benjamin’s collaboration with Georgia Anne Muldrow and Meshell Ndegeocello on a cover of Alice Coltrane’s spiritual anthem, was not meant to be topical. At least not in the way that it now might seem on this Friday the 13th. Coltrane’s “Om Shanti” — Sanskrit for “peace,” and a commonly chanted Buddhist and Hindu invocation used as a centering of our bodies, minds and words — is simply the energy we always want to put into the universe. And with Muldrow’s growling voice and Ndgeocello’s bass mixing Benjamin’s alto, it is both purposefully uplifting and fiercely defiant. Yet now, today, it somehow feels even more pertinent.
“Om Shanti” is part of the renowned New York saxophonist’s upcoming album Pursuance: The Coltranes, on which she pays tribute to the compositions by both John and Alice Coltrane, the mythical first couple of spiritual jazz, whose work keeps resonating on and on. If you don’t know Benjamin’s name, chances are you’ve heard her horn — or will shortly. Her credits include playing with folks like Stevie Wonder and Alicia Keys, The Roots and Gregory Porter, and on film soundtracks, including Pineapple Express. This is how Benjamin can assemble the all-star ensemble that helped make Pursuance.
In addition to presenting the new music, we asked Lakecia Benjamin about her own relationship to the Coltranes’ sound and message, and about what that music means in these strange times.
Your new album Pursuance is a tribute to John and Alice Coltrane. Tell me what your relationship with their music is. When and how did you discover it?
I actually came into the Coltranes’ music first through Alice Coltrane. At the time I had a friend, Georgia Anne Muldrow, that not only loved her music, but was family friends with Alice Coltrane. She played me Alice Coltrane’s version on “Turiya and RamaKrishna” from the album Ptah el Daoud. That song made me fall in love with Alice Coltrane’s music and opened the door to me to explore more of her albums. At that time, I was always opening the CD booklets and reading the liner notes and album credits. That’s how I found other musicians to listen to. One day I saw something written about John Coltrane and I thought to myself “wow, Alice has a brother? I should check out his music.” Once I Googled him, it became clear they were married and I became even more intrigued. I starting listening to his music in chronological order to the best of my ability. By the time I finished, my world was rocked. I realized this was THE power couple of all time. And my sense of music and direction was forever changed.
The performance of “Om Shanti,” which we’re premiering, is pretty massive, especially with how your saxophone and Meshell Ndegeocello’s bass, compounded by the growl in Georgia Ann Mudlrow’s voice, add a heaviness to what is an ethereal song. On the one hand, it’s a faithful rendition — on another, it accesses internal feelings with different sound textures. How did you approach the song?
“Om Shanti” is my favorite Alice Coltrane song. From the moment I heard Alice’s rendition, I fell in love with it. The concept behind Pursuance was not to present better versions of the songs, but to present alternative versions. In my eyes, there can be no better version of any of these songs than the originals as they were composed by the masters and made with the original sentiment in mind. My goal is to touch people… heal people through the music. I hope two things for this record. First, when someone hears the recordings they will be super inspired to find out more about the Coltranes (maybe it will even bring more people into jazz and the Coltranes’ music). I want to bring attention to the legacy of my cross-generational guests. Hopefully that inspires people to research them and learn about all they have done for the music. Second, it is to make sure everyone who hears the music is touched in some way and walks away feeling something.
I picked Georgia Anne Muldrow because she is the one who introduced me to Alice Coltrane’s music. We have been friends since college and her love and dedication to truly singing to the heavens is well documented. For Meshell, we had never played or made any music together but as na artist I have always been inspired by her work an the passion, the groove and depth behind her music. I took a leap of faith and decided to contact her cold to see is she would be interested. Turns out she very much loves Alice Coltrane and agreed. The universe was on my side this day.
Another thing this version of “Om Shanti” made me think of is what Alice’s music says to our present condition — and how, by reinterpreting it, you both accentuate her message and translate it for our times. How do you think Alice’s music, both “Om Shanti” specifically and her compositions in general, resonate now?
I think both of the Coltranes’ ultimate message was always supreme love for one another and for the creator. They were always trying to heal people through music and give the highest praise to the Creator at all times. That’s, for sure, something that’s needed these days. Sometimes I feel that as a society we have lost track of what really matters. The world and life can be very distracting and keeps you focused on paying rent, bills, houses, cars, new clothes. We often forget that we have other needs to focus on as well — those are the needs that directly affect our mental health and spiritual well-being. I hope playing Alice’s music will draw people closer to peace of mind.