In mid-September 2021, the saxophonist and bandleader Lakecia Benjamin was driving home from a performance in Cleveland when her car slid off the highway, careened through a wooded area and flipped into a drainage ditch.
“I woke up the first time to somebody pulling me out of the car, trying to break it open,” Benjamin, a bright light on the New York scene since the early 2010s, said through two masks on a recent Saturday morning at the National Jazz Museum in Harlem. “Then I woke up in the hospital on a surgical table and them telling me, ‘You’re going to be OK.’ I didn’t know what happened or what was going on.”
The accident left the Washington Heights native with three broken ribs, a fractured scapula, a perforated eardrum, a concussion, neurological damage and — worst of all — a broken jaw, a severe blow to any horn player, let alone one with her intensity. Undeterred, Benjamin went to Europe just three weeks later, somehow summoning the strength to play songs from her 2020 album, “Pursuance: The Coltranes,” a project dedicated to the astral jazz of the creative soul mates John and Alice.
How did she get through it? “A little bit from the Heights,” she said, alluding to her toughness. “A little bit of clamping down and staying clamped on the mouthpiece. And I really think I was lucky that I was playing the Coltrane music. That energy, and that message; that was what I was supposed to be doing.”
Though Benjamin has been a rising star in jazz for more than a decade, she reached a new gear in 2020 following the release of “Pursuance: The Coltranes,” an album lauded for its refreshing take on bebop and spiritual jazz. The car accident couldn’t dim her determination. Hustle and ingenuity have defined Benjamin’s career, and her strong will, warmth and down-to-earth persona come through in the music. Equally melodic and assertive, her sound feels rooted in tradition, yet broad enough to encompass R&B and Latin music; its pronounced funk suggests allegiances to hip-hop and dance.
The trauma of Benjamin’s crash anchors her new album, “Phoenix,” out Friday, a vast, labyrinthine set of arrangements that opens with “Amerikkan Skin,” a propulsive song that features the wail of emergency vehicle sirens. “Instead of starting musically only, I’m trying to put the audience in a state of mind, of the type of frenzy and frantic, the hecticness I felt getting out of the car,” she explained.
By incorporating sampled gunfire into the mix, the song also recollects wider tensions of recent years. “Black people are going through it,” Benjamin said. “Lower class people are going through it. Everyone is going through something.”
Featuring the civil rights activist Angela Davis, the poet Sonia Sanchez, the pianist and R&B singer Patrice Rushen and the saxophonist Wayne Shorter, the album both examines the nuances of Blackness and emphasizes the contributions of women to American culture. “Revolutionary hope resides precisely among those women who have been abandoned by history,” Davis declares on “Amerikkan Skin.” “I truly believe, and men should appreciate this, that this is the era of women.”
Benjamin started her own journey in jazz, long a male-dominated form, when she told an art teacher at her elementary school that she wanted to play alto sax before she even knew what it was. Actually getting her hands on the instrument involved persuading a classmate to switch from sax to art. “I think I negotiated a couple Oreos or something,” Benjamin deadpanned.
She attended the Harlem School of the Arts, then the Fiorello H. LaGuardia High School of Music & Art and Performing Arts, where she studied saxophone under the multi-reedist Patience Higgins. Later, as a student at the New School, she went to concerts after class and saw players like Gary Bartz whenever they were in town. Benjamin said she talked Bartz into giving her “one little lesson,” which led to his teaching her how to play classical music. From there, she studied under other noted saxophonists — Vincent Herring, Bruce Williams, Jerome Richardson and Steve Wilson — and tried to absorb everything she could about the instrument: “I was calling Kenny Garrett, everybody, ‘Hey, can you teach me?’”
The drummer Terri Lyne Carrington met Benjamin around 2010, when she was touring to support her album “The Mosaic Project,” and Benjamin joined to play a few shows. “She came in and I was like, ‘Wow, this is really electrifying,’” Carrington said in a telephone interview. “I could hear her spirit, her soul, everything was right there on the line.” She commended Benjamin for playing with emotion without losing the technical aspects of playing the blues.
“We as jazz musicians can be musically intellectual and worried about playing hip and all those things,” Carrington said. “I was so happy to hear someone of her generation connect to the blues and to the origins of jazz in the way that she did.”
Carrington produced Benjamin’s new album, tweaking compositions while adhering to the saxophonist’s own vision for the LP. “She wanted to involve people that she has called elders in some ways,” Carrington said. “I think that’s really an important element with young musicians to recognize or not recognize: to want to exchange. All of us have to, including her, pass on what we know to the people that are coming up behind us. That’s the only way the music survives.”
The song “Basquiat” — a scorching arrangement dedicated to that artist — has a shape-shifting rhythm that pivots between calm and tranquillity. And the rapper, singer and producer Georgia Anne Muldrow appears on the title track, offering celestial coos for its spiritual-minded intro. The slow-rising arrangement purposefully depicts Benjamin’s resurgence in the wake of her accident.
“I’ve seen her transform,” Muldrow said over the telephone. “The most beautiful thing about ’Kecia is that she is just more of herself. She’s more open with sharing the ideas that are within her. She’s become absolutely fearless in what it is — a compositional value, performance value, all these things. If you know ’Kecia, she ain’t gonna tell you nothing but the truth. She ain’t gonna give you nothing but what’s on her mind.”
Benjamin said the perseverance she’s put into her career, and into recovering from her accident, are the backbone of “Phoenix,” which she hopes shows others “that anything is possible.”
“I think I’m starting to see that I can accomplish more with the help of God than I thought I could,” she said. “I keep thinking this is the ceiling for me. And then I keep pressing it and pushing it. I’m growing; I feel like a phoenix. But I also feel we’re all out here the same way. We all have to heal from the pandemic. We all have to rise from these ashes.”