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In the 21st century, and especially so in the USA, most of the discourse is dominated by a male point of view. Even when women are speaking, too often the ideas coming out of their mouths are words, or theories, that came from the minds of men. Which all is why I dig so much of what Lakecia Benjamin is doing as a thoughtful  musician.

When she was younger, after graduating high school, she bopped hip hop. Fortunately, musically she quickly matured and grew far, far beyond the areas of which she had been an active proponent, and also far beyond the genre restrictions of which she was initially enamored–note that rap does not significantly reward instrumentalists.

Ms. Benjamin is aware of herself as a Black woman and additionally willingly embraces both her ethnic and musical heritages. Although the alto saxophone is her chosen instrument, she obviously is deeply impressed by, as well as inspired by, tenor and soprano saxophonist John Coltrane.

However, do not sleep on her dedication to the alto saxophone, especially since John Coltrane initially started on alto before switching to tenor and eventually doubling on soprano. Nor, do not dare overlook Lakecia’s enthusiasm for Alice Coltrane who was a spiritual being of transcendent light. Between John’s resuscitation of the soprano sax and Alice’s expert employment of the harp, the couple expanded the palette of instruments routinely used in jazz during the eras of their respective activities.

Significantly, in 2020 Lakecia put out an album of music by the Coltranes. That’s right, Pursuance: The Coltranes features the compositions of both Alice (1937–2007) and John (1926–1967), thereby elevating the Coltranes as composers and not solely as instrumentalists.

Pursuance: The Coltranes is a daring exercise, especially since Lakecia’s first album was R&B and rap oriented. However, Pursuance is strictly, hard-core jazz. In a big way. Lakecia’s Coltrane project is not only based on the compositions of Coltrane husband and wife, Lakecia also employs approximately 45 musicians on the project. A partial list of participants is massive: Reggie Workman, Ron Carter, Gary Bartz, Dee Dee Bridegwater, Meshell Ndegecello, Regina Carter, Bertha Hope, Last Poets, Greg Osby, Steve Wilson, John Benitez, Marc Cary, Marcus Gilmore, Keyon Harrold, Marcus Strickland, Brandee Younger, Georgia Anne Muldrow and Jazzmeia Horn.

Moreover, Lakecia loves to dance as she often exhibits with her onstage moves. Unsurprising, as an alto saxophonist, initially she was into Maceo Parker (of James Brown fame), however John Coltrane soon became her obvious model. She rips off solos that take the Trane on out there a minute. Her orientation is classic jazz, not the commercially oriented “smooth jazz”, although she is adept at performing in both funky and avant-garde genres.

Black music needs more musicians like Lakecia Benjamin–fearless, seriously committed to stretching out and being their whole selves. 

This young sister is leading the forward way. She reaches back, yes, to bringing up the old heads–musicians who were recording in the sixties and seventies–but also Lakecia includes her own generation as well as musicians in the gap between when the music went electric and the music of where Lakecia is at now in the new millennium.

The breadth of her influences is astounding because she has studied both history and technique, and demonstrates all that she has learned whenever, or wherever, she plays–or should I say when or where she be serious, ’cause Lakecia don’t play.

NPR interview with Lakecia Benjamin 

 

There is an important book, The Alphabet Versus the Goddess: The Conflict Between Word and Image by Leonard Shlain. The title advertises what the book is about. Essential reading for those who are ready to go deep on history and the English language. Indeed, if you enjoy Ms. Benjamin, you probably could get into Shlain’s ideas with no problem.

Without exaggeration, Lakecia is a veritable  musical diety. She manifests wisdom well beyond her youth and plays with an ardor and passion that enables her to commune with the old heads while exhibiting a youthful enthusiasm for the diverse directions of emerging approaches.

As lagniappe, we close with a major three-hour, album release concert that featured numerous guest musicians whom Lakecia selected. This outing is both surprising and significant–a young Black woman is both the organizer and the main soloist in a truly democratic experience. Lakecia is clearly the leader but she is no narcissist only interested in herself, thus she is accompanied by and presents an entourage of accomplished musicians.

Rarely, if ever, has a young 21st-century saxophonist undertaken and successfully accomplished a concert of this magnitude and magnificence. Lakecia has obviously embraced and employed her inner god-spirit in order to raise herself, her fellow artists, and her audience. This is aural elevation.

 

 


> Abbey Lincoln Interview

Cue Abbey Lincoln (August 6, 1930–August 14, 2010) to be the lead vocalist. Few others have created music that so completely mirrors the freedom struggle and the iconic truism that Black is, indeed, beautiful.

Her performances approach seances. She captures your spirit and catapults you to a higher plane of existence. Abbey uplifts you and inspires you to believe that you can not only uplift yourself, but you can also uplift others–those whom you love, all the members, known and unknown, of your community.

There is something in her that is in all of us–yet most of us don’t know our own greatness. She does. She sings and helps us all to recognize that there is magic in any being that can triumph over oppression.

I’ve been blessed to experience her live. She is more than a performer. She is a magician. Abbey credits what she does to the power of the music, even when she is singing in a language we may not understand.

Over her long career she has enthralled, enlightened, and elevated us–all of us who were witness to the extraordinary power of her vocal work.

 

For a minute (1962 to 1970) Max Roach and Abbey Lincoln were the major couple of jazz in the sixties. Max was a monster drummer who was also a composer, band leader and major social figure.

Prior to the ascendency of Nina Simone, Abbey Lincoln was considered the most socially conscious of jazz vocalists. Abbey’s elevation was most surprising in that she was initially marketed as a sexy torch singer and even had promotion in some quarters as the woman who admirably fit into Marilyn Monroe’s dress. However, in union with Max Roach, she recorded an all-time classic album, We Insist!, which some critics categorized as “protest music”, especially since the cover image replicated and comemorated the first sit-in of the sixties.

I contend that Europe offered more opportunities to work and far more respect for Black jazz artists than was ever found at home in the United States. A classic example of honor abroad and neglect at home is that the only televised presentation of Abbey Lincoln and Max Roach working as a duo was a Belgian television special.

A major questioned was definitely answered by this presentation: Could Ms. Lincoln duplicate live the intensity of her sometimes wordless vocal work captured for the album? The definitive answer was yes. Check out the generous excerpts of the concert to appreciate the emotional force of the music the duo produced.

Interviews with Abbey Lincoln / Max Roach

 

 

 

I graduated from high school in 1964, the same year this film premiered. The black and white movie is directed by Michael Roemer, in a hyper-realistic manner that became known as “Neo-realism”.

Based in the Deep South, this movie features Ivan Dixon, as railroad worker Duff Anderson, who falls for Abbey Lincoln, who plays Josie Dawson, a school teacher and minister’s daughter. 

The strength of the movie is its emphasis on the lives of the characters who include Yaphet Kotto as Jocko, a fellow “gandy man” (as the manual labor railroad workers were known) and veteran thespian Gloria Foster as Lee, an embittered woman whom life has not treated kindly.

Much of the movie has a documentary feel in parallel with the romance of the lead characters. Some scenes are straight out of a time capsule that captures elements of life in the south before the Civil Rights movement.

Uncharacteristic of cinema of its era, Nothing But A Man does not shy away from presenting class and social conflicts among working people who are neither entertainers nor individual credits to the race. They are just people trying to make it, cut from the common cloth of Black life. 

While the lead actors are totally believable, the minor characters also have moments of brilliance and/or authenticity. The viewer believes that this is how life was before picket lines, sit-ins, and the advent of Black Power. There is no glamour here, only daily toil and survival determination.

The soundtrack is a collaboration with the then newly rising Detroit-based Motown label. Counterintuitively, music produced in one of the major Northern cities fits right in with this Southern setting.

This is one of the major movies of the sixties. Although unflashy by today’s standards–there are no shoot-outs, grand theft schemes, car chases, nor gratuitous sex scenes–this quiet study perfectly presents the lives of small town, hard working people existing just before the tumult and upheaval characteristic of the sixties challenges in the Deep South.

Nothing But A Man is a movie that admirably earns the “quiet dignity” label.

 

Congalero Mongo Santamaria wrote the music. Following that, Oscar Brown Jr. composed a beautiful lyric. And then, Trane (John Coltrane that is) dropped a stirring instrumental. The song took off and soon afterward became a jazz standard. From there “Afro Blue” was re-recorded by literally dozens of artists, in diverse styles from classic jazz to hip hop. 

What is interesting is despite the wide variety of approaches that are taken, the song remains almost instantly identifiable. Indeed, it’s hard, if not impossible, to have only one favorite version.

Enjoy this cornucopia of approaches to the classic “Afro Blue”.

 

Meet Faren Humes. She be doing it–despite obstacles put on Black filmmakers, especially when they are women, Faren makes fresh films out of seemingly mundane matters.

Her work both clarifies and mystifies. Clarifies in the sense that she delves deeply into reality and presents an analysis as well as emotions that help us understand. Mystifies in the sense that she is often plowing fields most of us would find foreign and completely outside of our culture and daily existence.

I was bowled over by the breathtaking density of sacrifice and struggle that is exemplified in her film short. Our Rhineland is about Afro-German sisters with contrasting ideas about how to deal with Nazi era authoritative restrictions and stulifying constrictions. This investigation specifically focuses on the issue of sterilization, which the Nazis did to those they identified as “mixed-race women”.

While it may seem both sensible and tempting to keep your head down and go along to get along, accommodation and attempts at assimilation are generally at the cost of essential aspects of one’s personality and existence.

Liberty offers a peek inside, however, Faren is not a tour guide. As you watch and react, you have to figure out for yourself the meaning of what you see, especially as you are often looking at people, places, events about which you know very little–notwithstanding our experiential ignorance, we are nevertheless captivated by what Faren shows.

Liberty is a study for a feature length project that will deal with gentrification and other social issues forced on Black residents of an imp0verished Miami neighborhood. Rather than portray the youth as broken and hopeless, Liberty exudes the vibrancy and resilience of the youthful girls boldly facing an uncertain future.

Here are a revealing blog and production notes about the making of Liberty.

Faren Humes has an innovative approach to film-making. She is a creative griot who tells the story with a minimum of narrative moralizing. The images say it all. The question is not what it means but really, are we listening? Are we even trying to understand those who are different from ourselves?

 

 

 

In popular music, we don’t often consider the composer. We are usually more impressed by the individual musical skills of the lead entertainer. Occasionally, a musician becomes famous as the conductor of an ensemble (e.g. Duke Ellington, Count Basie, John Coltrane, Miles Davis). Identifying all of the music with the leader rather than individual soloists typically happens in jazz, a genre that includes a plethora of musical styles merged and melded into one form that invariably consists of both musical prowess and imagination at Promethean levels.

We are usually enthralled by and marvel at the specific performer rather than the musical composition itself, so much so that we either assume that the performer wrote the piece of music or that it was an individual/collective contribution from band mates. Moreover, the approach of an individual so often overshadows the composition to the point that we enjoy a particular performance much more than the composition. The folk wisdom puts it best: it’s not what you do but rather the way that you do it.

The music of Leon Ware (February 16, 1940 – February 23, 2017) exemplifies this trend. During his long career, covers of his music by various artists have often become more famous than his own versions. Ware recorded thirteen albums between 1972 and 2019, the last of which was released posthumously. Invariably it was recordings by artists such as Michael Jackson, Marvin Gaye, Minnie Riperton and numerous others that made the charts and became well loved songs.

In 2001 there was a major concert of Leon Ware music held at the Amsterdam venue Paradiso. Unfortunately the entire of the concert is not available as a live recording but we do have five video tracks. Leon Ware is surrounded by a bevy of musicians who bring his music to a rousing and beautiful fruition.

Houston born vocalist Carleen Anderson who left the United States for London and became the lead singer with the Young Disciples band is superb as both a soloist and in counterpoint to Leon’s vocals when she trades scat improvisations with Leon.

Spearhead’s Michael Franti may seem like an unlikely choice to round out the trio of lead vocals but Franti’s pleasing baritone contributions as a rap orator prove to be a wonderful addition. Franti brings an excellent sensibility to his philosophically insightful interpretations.

The musical bed is provided by the DOX Orchestra, which includes a wizard on turntables, scratching and mixing melodies and sounds. The electric bass and lead guitar on top of a funky drummer interact with fillagrees of saxophone improvisations that entwine in and around Ware’s attractive compositions.

How Leon hooked up with the Dox Orchestra is complicated but is essentially a result of foreign fascination with the musical abilities of a Black American composer, to whom principals in the Netherlands were attracted. In short, contacts between a journalist named Martijn Delaere, led to producer Omar Rey and band leader Bart Suer that eventually resulted in the trio becoming a catalyst for the concert. How I got the information is from Carol Ware, Leon’s widow, who had a friend who saw my write up and passed it on, and–well, you never know who is checking you out. It’s an apt truism: what you send around, is sometimes what you receive back, i.e. what goes around, comes around.

At the Paradiso concert, the inspiring musical mixture is ably abetted by the soaring Zapp! string section and augmented by an angelic trio of female backing vocalists. Quality music is a magnet that attracts talents worldwide.

Deep respect to the sensitive sound engineers who mixed the diverse elements into an intoxicating aural ambrosia that satiates even as it encourages a desire to hear more.

The tapestry of instruments and voices are collectively woven into a musical magic carpet that transports us to higher heights. The well balanced sound system enables us to hear each element as we appreciate the diverse timbres and textures of this sonic sublimity. There are no distractions. Oh, what a delight this night of music was.

Don’t miss this exquisite amalgamation of talented and inspired musicians coalescing with lead vocals by Leon Ware, Carleen Anderson and Michael Franti.

This concert outing is a magnificent, although woefully incomplete, summary of Leon Ware’s music presented in stellar fashion. To further illustrate the depth of Leon’s music, below, in the same order as above, are popular recording and concert versions of the same songs. You will probably be surprised to learn that Leon was the composer and occasional producer behind this stirring music.

Moreover, included is a brief video explanation by Leon on “Inside My Love”. In New Orleans we call a little extra by the term “lagniappe”. Enjoy–and try not to get too excited by the discovery that Leon Ware was the creative engineer who wrote and arranged the aural foundation and development of all this beautiful and exciting music.

 Quincy Jones and Leon Ware (at the piano) working on music together.

 

 

 

 

Early, early in her career, Afro-German (father from South Africa, mother from Germany), vocalist Joy Denalane cut a track in a samba-modified reggae stylee, however, she never returned to that specific genre, instead choosing to go a full out soul music route, singing in both English and German. 

Her 2002 debut album, Mamani, was what totally grabbed my attention. It featured her as one of a quartet of women on a cover of Nina’s “Four Women” and I wanted to know more. That’s how I got to Torch Of Freedom, which came out in 2003 and was followed by one drop remixes.

The song is almost twenty years old now but still sounds like she is singing about conditions today. Joy reminds us, we all need to let our little lights shine–and if we all do, our individual little lights can become a collective big fire, a torch of freedom!

 

 

Music is strange. Can be soothing. Or, on the other hand, that bad boy might be tempestuous. You know, like sunshine in the morning and hailing up a storm at night. Some days are dry. Other times, too many of our hours be wet. Especially when the wetness actually comes from our own tears flooding up our lives. You know what I’m saying?

I have written about this conjure woman before here. You can go and check it out, I don’t need to be repeating myself. You can read for yourself my appreciations, my reactions to Alice Smith’s singing, especially since I have provided direct links, thereby enabling you to judge for yourself.

Howsoever, what I do want to mention is that Alice Smith sings from the inside out. You don’t get to holla like this if you ain’t never been hurt. This is the voice of experience, and you don’t get to be truly experienced unless you done felt some pain, some bone deep pain (maybe even bone breaking: an arm, a leg, could be a foot, or your skull billy-club cracked open). Indeed, in some weirdly justified ways, shit could cost us our lives when the po-po decide to make an example of us.

And if you are someone that has so far dodged hardships, well, if you live, your time will come. Because into each life, some rain. . . besides, as the philosopher Melvin Van Peebles, presciently noted: a birth certificate ain’t nothing but a death warren, anyway. If you live, you got to die–the only question is what will you do with your little lifetime in between birth and death.

But don’t worry about messing around trying to figure out the mysteries of life, right now we are being impressed by Ms. Smith and the super-emotional way she got with notes in her throat. Indeed, the fact is, I believe her sound come from further down in her anatomy.

Some of her music is not suitable for children nor inexperienced adults, and certainly not appropriate for the average office space where mostly pop, soft rock, and/or quiet jazz or cool classical music are streamed. She be singing about shit you got to go deep to hear. Like butt-naked, dressed only in the honesty of anguish, anger and/or “just can’t help yourself” obsession; plus you are fully aware that giving your all to a love that hurts, well. . .if you been there you know.

By the way, if you Google “Alice Smith” you can get to hear a bunch of her music. What you waiting for? Why read my verbal rambling when you could be listening to the real deal. Go on, nah. These words will be here for long as the internet is working. But right now, go check out Ms. Smith.

What I got here are four variations of spells put on ya. You might not dig all of them, and a couple might even sound somewhat repetitive. But that’s the way of the world, ain’t nothing too much new under the sun. Might be new to us or different from what we be used to, but just cause we have yet to dig it, don’t mean it is something teetotally original, never ever been done before.

Besides, who says our arms are long enough to even much shadow box with the creator? Really our lifetimes are too brief to completely, much less accurately, comprehend the universe. We can’t even map out the history of our humanity, which ain’t all that long, compared to how long the earth been supporting life forms, you know bugs, fish, birds and four-leggeds, not to mention everything specific from mosquitoes to dinosaurs. Life been around for quite a spell. Much, much longer than us.

In the universal context, humanity is just a brief zit on the face of history. Besides, that pimple gonna eventually dry up, pop, or least wise disappear, ’cause ugly don’t last forever. Sun gonna shine. . . We just gotta ride out the hard times, spit out the bitter and savor the sweet whensoever we get a little taste. Meanwhile, get yourself inspirated by a healthy hearing of Alice Smith. That woman can sang. Period. Full stop.

 

I am not a religious man. Although, I was borne by people of the word and of the book, I do not believe in any form of organized religion. However, as the saying goes, regardless of what any of us may think, faith is in our blood. Never mind that Dr. Charles Drew demonstrated that blood does not work the way we believe it does.

In short, during the forties, Dr. Drew (1904–1950) discovered a way to process and store blood as plasma, which proved to be important and often life-saving, especially during the second World War. While I am deeply impressed and appreciative of the work of Dr. Drew, particularly as he demonstrated that blood is totally unrelated to race, nevertheless, my understanding is that our African racial origins go back thousands of years. Chester Higgins is attuned to the significance of our heritage.

Higgins is a professional photographer who did amazing work especially as a staff photographer for the New York Times. His iconic images of Black people are often reproduced worldwide.


This image by Chester Higgins of Amiri Baraka dancing with Maya Angelou has a special meaning. They are dancing atop a cosmogram on the main floor of the then newly renovated and expanded Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, located in Harlem. Beneath the cosmogram are buried the remains of Langston Hughes. There were literally hundreds of us witnessing the joyous celebration.

 



I, like thousands of other people, got to know Chester. We all were blessed to be bathed in the glow of his work and especially awash in the luminous generosity of his spirit. He loves his people.

Down in New Orleans, our writing workshop produced a publication, Fertile Ground, that featured creative work with a section on writers in England. Chester agreed to provide us a cover photograph of a majestic African baobab tree.

Of course, when I heard that Chester had a new book based on his many travels throughout Egypt, Ethiopia, and the Sudan, I knew I wanted to own a copy.  Sacred Nile is a beautifully printed, coffee-table sized photo essay. It far exceeded my expectations. The text includes a breakdown of the linguistic choices the classic languages forced people to make who wanted to translate the utterances of the ancients. There are literally pages and pages of knowledgable background and contextual information, but none of that is as important as are the photographs themselves. 

As I sat with the book in my lap, I found myself moved to actually touch the photographs. In awe I brushed my fingertips across the images. Once you see the various people and varied landscapes, you know the greatness Africa has produced. Like many people in the South of the USA, who have a family bible in which are recorded family lineages, Chester’s book is instructive of who we are and where many of us came from.

Like me, you may not be a follower of any particular religion, but this book, with over 150 expertly printed, exquisite photographs, captures the eloquent beauty and magnificence of both the land and the people of our ancestral home. Ashe. Ashe. Ashe ohhh!