Lakecia Benjamin – Retox – Motéma MTM-90, 55:55 ***:
(Lakecia Benjamin – alto and soprano saxophone, co-producer; Solomon Dorsey – bass; Jesse Fischer – keys, organ; Chris Rob – key bass, keys, organ (tracks 2, 4, 7); Shelton Gardner – guitar; Louis Cato – guitar (tracks 2, 4, 7); Brandee Younger – harp (track 4); Jonathan Powell – trumpet, flugelhorn; Mark Williams – trombone (tracks 2, 7); Nick Roseboro – trumpet (tracks 1, 3, 6, 8, 10); Andre Murchison – trombone (track 3); Tracy Nicole, Amp Fiddler – vocals (track 2); Jacoria Marzett – vocals, Whosane – rap (track 4); Krystle Warren – vocals (track 5); Mavis “Swan” Poole – vocals (track 6); Chinah Blac – vocals (track 7); Maya Azucena – vocals (track 8); Melanie Charles – vocals (track 11))
Retox is saxophonist Lakecia Benjamin’s debut, but despite writing both the music and the lyrics, the nearly hour-long, 12-track album focuses on various up-and-coming and/or little known vocalists, who contribute to just over half the set list. Benjamin is steeped in jazz, R&B, funk, soul and contemporary dance/pop. As a musician for hire, she’s worked with Stevie Wonder (she covers a Wonder song here), Alicia Keys, The Roots and Macy Gray; her jazz history consists of stints with Clark Terry, Reggie Workman and James “Blood” Ulmer; and now Benjamin is poised to enter the crossover market with Retox, a soul-jazz effort which reveals the Motéma label’s deliberate move into music formatted for younger urban audiences.
Benjamin begins with her funky opening statement, the Wonder-esque “Soulsquad,” named after Benjamin’s backing band, which includes bassist Solomon Dorsey, keyboardist Jesse Fischer and guitarist Shelton Gardner, with assistance from a horn section. The mostly instrumental cut has a contemporary groove akin to Parliament-Funkadelic meets David Sanborn, and evolved from a band jam at a concert sound check. A similar sheen permeates the instrumental “Maceo,” a soul-jazz homage to James Brown saxophonist Maceo Parker, who was a major influence on Benjamin. This is pure, early-1970s jazz-funk which could have come from the Donald Byrd songbook. Another funk-filled instrumental is the appropriately titled “Get Down,” which has a Candy Dulfer-like groove, which is apt since Dulfer played with Prince, and Prince is an acknowledged Benjamin inspiration. The closing instrumental “Slow Juice,” however, is a lackluster and leisurely contemporary jazz offering which moves like molasses: while friendly, it seems plodding and far too decelerated than it needs to be.
Most material showcases several vocalists. At the top of the song pile is the first single, the beat-buttressed “Jump and Shout,” which features Chaka Khan-like singer Chinah Blac (a self-possessed singer ready to quit her backing vocalist jobs to become a solo singer). “Jump and Shout” is a driving and breezy romp which mixes a party atmosphere with a romantic kiss-off: a celebration of kicking a no-good partner out the door. Here, as on most of the vocal songs, Benjamin generally stays in the background and lets the lyrics, the band and the singers take the spotlight. Tracy Nicole maintains a soulful tingle throughout “Keep Talkin’,” which starts with a horn riff seemingly borrowed from Sam and Dave (listen to this and “Soul Man” to hear the similarities) and then shifts to an arrangement reminiscent of Wonder, with a Motown-ish groove. Another standout is “Human Being,” a blend of gospel, jazz and funk elements with Mavis “Swan” Poole’s echoed voice at the front and back ends of this mainly instrumental workout. That’s a shame, since Poole is armed with a strong voice which deserves a better platform. The record’s biggest misstep, though, is Benjamin’s languid instrumental interpretation of Wonder’s “Don’t You Worry ‘Bout a Thing.” Wonder’s underlying Latin groove and slightly salacious tone has been deemphasized with a sleekly-produced arrangement which has a by-the-buttons shrewdness: this number shouts out for a singer to really bring something soulful. Other tracks, such as mid-tempo “Share My Love,” which includes a mid-song rap; the dreamy ballad “Smile” (not the standard penned by Charlie Chaplin); and the unhurried “My Love” are also less than stellar. There are some bright moments on Retox, but this is not quite the intoxicating brew which Benjamin and, presumably Motéma, hoped for. It will be interesting, though, to hear what Benjamin aims for on her next project: she’s got talent. For anyone who wants more information, there is a six-minute promotional video with musical excerpts and interview segments with Benjamin.
TrackList: Soulsquad; Keep Talkin’; Maceo; Share My Life; My Love; Human Being; Jump and Shout; Smile; Get Down; Don’t You Worry ‘Bout a Thing; Dreams; Slow Juice.
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