Andrey's Picks: New Jazz from Lakecia Benjamin, Jim Self, The Necks

Over the past decade-plus, alto saxophonist Lakecia Benjamin, 40, has been one of the key figures reinvigorating jazz from the inside. Born and raised in New York and educated at LaGuardia High School of Music & Art and Performing Arts (the famed Fame school) and the New School, Benjamin has worked with artists as diverse as David Murray and Stevie Wonder. Her last album, Pursuance, was a starry tribute to the legacy of John and Alice Coltrane. Phoenix (Whirlwind Recordings), her latest—to belabor an already labored metaphor—has Benjamin rising from the pandemic's ashes.

The police siren and gunshots that open the album with an unsettling jolt foreshadow some of the weighty sociopolitical themes Benjamin will tackle. Civil rights activist Angela Davis's voice introduces "Amerikkan Skin"; Benjamin's horn recalls the siren over a martial rhythm, her solo full of anguish and anger. Other guests lend vocals/recitation: on the spacy title track, Georgia Anne Muldrow, founder of the label SomeOthaShip Connect; jazz diva Dianne Reeves on the uplifting "Mercy"; poet Sonia Sanchez, first with just bass on "Peace Is a Haiku Song" then with the whole band on "Blast." Saxophonist Wayne Shorter contributes vocals and lyrics on the brief "Supernova." Pianist Patrice Rushen contributes to her own 1975 composition, "Jubilation."

Benjamin receives strong support from a variety of players, especially Josh Evans on trumpet and Victor Gould on piano, organ, and Fender Rhodes. Mostly, though, it's Benjamin's saxophone that binds the album together, especially on the soaring "Trane," the aptly titled "Rebirth," and "Basquiat" with its urban jitters.

When composer John Williams calls you "one of the greatest instrumentalists of his generation," you get some fun gigs. You may not know his name, but you've heard Jim Self's tuba. He makes his presence felt in Jabba the Hutt's palace in Return of the Jedi, during the raptor attack in Jurassic Park, and, most notably, as the voice of the Mothership at the end of Close Encounters of the Third Kind. When he isn't recording for film or filling the principal tuba chair for the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra or the Los Angeles Opera, he releases charming albums on his own Bassett Hound Music imprint.

My America 2: Destinations (Basset Hound Music) is the second album Self has made that mines the rich vein of Americana. While its 2003 predecessor (My America) was a grab-bag, Destinations has a throughline: Each of its 13 tunes evokes a city or region, from "New York State of Mind" through "Back Home Again in Indiana," along "Route 66," to "I Left My Heart in San Francisco" and "I Love L.A." As a composer, Self draws on the full range of American masters; as a player, he's heard on the F and CC tubas, the F "Jimbasso," the BBb "Cimbasso," and the "Fluba" (look 'em up). The innovative arrangements are by Kim Scharnberg, for an ensemble heavy on brass and horns. Self and Scharnberg give us "Kansas City" (Lieber and Stoller) and mashups of "King of the Road" (Roger Miller) and "Route 66" (Bobby Troup); of "Blue Bayou" (Roy Orbison and Joe Melson) and "Blue Bossa" (Kenny Dorham). Into John Philip Sousa's "Washington Post" march go "Also Sprach Zarathustra" and strains of Viennese waltz and Latin jazz.

Self's albums are about having as much fun as possible, and much of that fun derives from his facility with an instrument that's already fun all by itself. He can invest the tuba with uncommon lightness, making it as supple as a trombone, as brash as a trumpet, or as slinky as a saxophone. (For the latter, check out the plucky "Chattanooga Choo Choo" on this album.) His 'Tis the Season TUBA Jolly!, with the Hollywood Tuba 12—Self describes the ensemble as "all the best tuba players in Los Angeles"—is a must for holiday music lovers. It's also a fun test of your system's bass response.

Going strong after 35 years and nearly as many albums, Sydney, Australia–based piano trio The Necks—pianist/keyboardist Chris Abrahams, bassist Lloyd Swanton, and drummer Tony Buck—have a moniker that belies their music's limpid, timeless grandeur. Their albums have names like Sex (their 1989 debut), Next (from 1990), Chemist (2006), Open (2013), and Unfold (2017).

Travel (Northern Spy Records), the group's 19th studio album (footnote 1), was born of the ensemble's practice of beginning each day in the studio with a 20-minute warmup improvisation. "It's a really nice communal activity to bring us together in focus each day," said bassist Swanton, "and some lovely music has resulted from it." Travel was recorded by Tim Whitten and mastered by Douglas Henderson—the band's audio team for the past decade-plus—and released as a gatefold double LP. Each side contains one spontaneous piece: "Signal," "Forming," "Imprinting," and "Bloodstream," the first three initiated by bassist Swanton. While none of the recordings are completely live and untouched, the band says this is the closest they've ever come, with just some light overdubs and postproduction.

If the group's instrumentation within the jazz tradition seems unremarkable, its methodology—deliberate, microgranular evolution over long stretches of time—straightforward, the real art here is in the remarkable patience and total subsuming of ego it takes to avoid shattering these crystalline structures with an errant note or misplaced emphasis. The trio's familiarity with one another presents a further challenge: to recognize truly new strains and avoid rehashing old, familiar conversations. Travel is a great introduction to the group—a tasting menu of sorts, with the flavors changing relatively quickly—which can prepare one for feasting on one of The Necks' epic, hour-plus banquets.

Footnote 1: Kurt Gottschalk also reviewed Travel in March 2023.—Ed.