Ever see some generic corporate band or singer on tv and wonder to yourself if the backing musicians are content to play cliches all the time…or if they have secret lives where they pull off their masks and play real music? Saxophonist Lakecia Benjamin is one of those players. She’s toured with the kind of acts you hear in the laundromat – and also with Stevie Wonder. Last month, Motema released Retox, Benjamin’s debut album as a leader with her band Soul Squad, and it’s eclectic to the extreme, something you would expect from a musician who’s played as many styles as she has. Though drawing deeply on the classic sounds of James Brown, Maceo Parker, Sly and the Family Stone and the Meters, the album also includes several tracks that mix in a more current-day vibe. It won’t alienate those who’re satisfied with John Legend or Erykah Badu, but it’ll satisfy diehard fans of real oldschool artists from Sharon Jones to George Clinton.
It’s a blend of vocal and instrumental joints. Along with the blissfully peaceful, atmospheric Dreams, there are some serious party jams: the band’s signature, P-Funk flavored opening track, SoulSquad, which evolved out of a jam at a concert soundcheck; Maceo, a tribute to funky sax legend Maceo Parker that blends vintage JB’s with 70s P-Funk; and the horn-driven groove Get Down, a rousingly successful attempt to mix a 60s go-go feel with James Brown, right down to the fat but simple bass groove and tight, punchy horn riffs.
The rest of the tracks cover a lot of ground as well. Keep Talkin’, a casually seductive duet between Amp Fiddler and Tracey Nicole, mashes up a sweet mid 60s-style soul melody with more ambitious 70s stylings. Share My Life reaches for more of an early 90s soul/hip-hop feel, featuring airy, carefree vocals from Jacoria Marzett and a cameo from rapper Whosane over swirling, summery ambience. My Love features a nuanced, Sarah Vaughan-esque vocal by Krystle Warren, while Mavis Swan Poole sings Human Being, a hypnotically echoey jazz/funk fusion that brings to mind Digable Planets.
With its wickedly catchy hook, Jump and Shout holds nothing back, a driving but sultry kiss-off anthem: Benjamin had been looking for a singer to channel her lyrics’ righteous rage and when she heard Chinah Blac singing at a house party, she realized she’d found a match. The easygoing, satisfied, boudoir-pop song Smile bounces along with lead vocals by Maya Azucena and one of Benjamin’s signature lush, balmy horn charts – and an exquisitely warm, direct alto sax solo. And Don’t You Worry ‘Bout a Thing pays homage to Benjamin’s longtime pal Stevie Wonder: Benjamin speeds it up, reinventing it for the dancefloor with latin sabor and a tight clave beat.
The closing track, Slow Juice originated as a studio mistake: when Benjamin heard an earlier composition being played back at halfspeed, she realized that she’d stumbled upon a tremendous slow groove. So she took out the horns and vocals and turned the new track into a sly, sultry downtempo/trip-hop anthem, a platform for Benjamin to subtly flex the jazz chops she’d originally honed as a teenager playing with Rashied Ali and the Clark Terry Big Band. Benjamin’s next NYC gig with this band is 8/20 at the Red Rooster, 310 Lenox Ave. (125/126), time/$TBA; she’s at the big room at the Rockwood the following day, 8/21 at 8:30 PM for $10.