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Casey Benjamin: EclectRic Expressionism

Barbara Ina Frenz By

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Casey Benjamin aka Stutzmcgee—all-through New Yorker with Caribbean roots, born in 1978—grew up in the borough of Queens in a musical household. Despite economically rough conditions that his mother, a single parent, heroically managed, he started with piano around six, added the alto saxophone around ten, and the vocoder and talk-box around fifteen. At sixteen, he performed on alto saxophone together with Grover Washington Jr. on TV, and two years later he toured Europe as a saxophonist with Betty Carter, shortly before she passed away. As an original member of the Robert Glasper Experiment he develops a maverick, expressive singing and playing style on saxophone (alto and soprano) and vocoder, that delivers a huge part of the band's signature sound and brought two Grammys (2012, 2017). Currently he is working on his solo-album, of which he dropped a single & music video entitled "Dig" in September 2018. Multi-stylistically influenced and studied musician that he is—also active as co-leader of the band HEAVy, soloist, songwriter, producer and DJ—he embodies in his original way today's expanding, genre dissolving musical flux that continues to be formed by the jazz DNA. His very own music particularly emerges on reeds playing pedals while improvising and on vocoder exploring unheard emotional tones of the human singing voice through this challenging key instrument. Casey Benjamin creates music that makes me think of flowers cracking concrete—flowers you don't find in an academic patch.

All About Jazz: Your parents are immigrants from two different Caribbean states—your mother is from Panama, your father from Grenada. Both of your parents introduced you to music, each of them in their own way. Can you share some details and thoughts on your Caribbean cultural heritage?

Casey Benjamin: My mom migrated to the United States in the late Fifties, and my father came to the States in 1970. During that time in America—particularly the coastal regions of New York—there was a big influx of Caribbean and Hispanic families moving in, particularly to Brooklyn, New York City. That had a big influence on the culture—if you think of hip-hop. The architects of hip-hop are Caribbean. And there are a lot of Caribbean people in jazz and in r&b. Born in Brooklyn, growing up in Queens, and just growing up in a West Indian household, there was always calypso music, soca music and salsa music—along with just being a kid growing up in the '80s, there was hip-hop obviously, and popular music and radio. So, I was always exposed to a melting pot of different musical styles and sounds. And my father was a musician in the '70s, he was a bassist, he played in a lot of local rock and funk bands and he was a DJ.

AAJ: So, you had a musical role model with your father?

CB: Exactly. It was really my father's albums that sparked my musical interest. The first sounds I can ever remember are these two albums that my father would play a lot: Pat Metheny, Offramp—that was like 1982, I was three or four years old, and Quincy Jones, The Dude, that album, which came out around the same time [1981]. And my father had an old 1976 Ford Gran Torino—he had it souped-up, which is very rare at the time. He had this huge sound system you can hear from two blocks away and he would play. My father loved disco music and funk and he would always be playing—everything from Quincy Jones to Teddy Pendergrass to Emerson Lake & Palmer. He had a very wide pallet of music. So, that's where the bulk of my influence came from.

AAJ: What is your mother's musical background?

CB: My mom used to sing as a teenager, but she didn't really pursue it. When she met my father and they got married and had us, she sort of pushed it aside. But I do consider my mom a huge influence in my musical career, not so much on the music side but the passion of pursuing this and the love—and that to me is just as or probably even more important.

AAJ: What was your first musical instrument?

CB: It was a piano. I started playing at the age of—I'd say six or seven. I just played what I heard—and I have perfect pitch. But during that time I started playing, I didn't know what that was. I had no idea. I didn't find out till later, maybe around age of eleven or twelve. A mentor of mine, legendary jazz musician and arranger Weldon Irvine, told me that I have perfect pitch. And even then I was like, "what's that?! I don't know."

AAJ: Learning just by ears, by intuition—I imagine this to be the best start for playing a musical instrument. Not having that academic introduction right from the beginning.

CB: Yes. It definitely helped me. Basically anything I can hear I can play. That's a great tool having your ears open.

AAJ: How did it come that you additionally started playing the saxophone?

CB: It was at the beginning of the school year—this is fifth grade. And as kids are, they joke around and horseplay and they are not paying attention. My mentor, she was my music teacher then and turned out to be my mentor for many years—Pamela Smith—she was like: "Who wants to play a saxophone?" I thought she said "Who wants to play the drums?" Every young boy wanted to play the drums, so I wanted to play the drums. I was like raising my hand, "me, me, me, me!" Thinking that she's gonna come to me with some drum sticks, she came over with a saxophone. And I said, "Well, Ms. Smith I want to play the drums," she was like, "Well, you weren't paying attention, so you gonna play the saxophone." But it's crazy—I kid you not—two, three weeks later I knew all of my major/minor scales. I absolutely fell in love with this instrument. It was meant to be.

AAJ: Once again on your school at fifth grade: Which sort of musical program did they have, which kind of music did you play there?

CB: It was mainly jazz and popular music. I attended PS45, a public school. This is the late '80s. Public schools in the inner city still had music. It was on its way out because of politics. I was lucky to get that education. Because in the inner cities—it started to drive quickly. It was the Reagan-Bush era. When I started playing the saxophone, Bush senior was in office.

AAJ: They cut off support for cultural matters?

CB: Yes. They started cutting off community programs, after-school programs—all types of things. It was a very rough time in New York if you lived in the inner city.

AAJ: When and how did you gravitate towards singing?

CB: I didn't really start singing like seriously until my twenties—so a little later. And that came from HEAVy.

AAJ: So, with HEAVy you discovered that singing is something you can do?

CB: Oh yes. You know what it is—I was very timid and not sure about myself. But I've always been a fervent believer in singing doesn't necessarily have to have a tremendous amount of technique. I think it just has to do with confidence and, yea, just liking your voice. Because for a long time I did not like my singing voice and it took me a while. And I think I'm just maturing and getting older and knowing more of who I am. It helped me get a stronger grasp on "Hey, I can be a vocalist!"

AAJ: Your voice has a wide range to offer—from a high, falsetto-like voice to a deep voice, all of that with many emotional facets.

CB: Well, I think that [wide range] comes from being an instrumentalist. I think it can be tougher if you just start off being a vocalist.

AAJ: When did you start using electronics for your music? How did it come to that?

CB: When you're talking about the vocoder and the talk box—that started my mid-teenage years, something around fifteen, sixteen. And I started experimenting with that. I've always been a big fan of Roger Troutman and Herbie Hancock and Peter Frampton, people like this—and I always just wanted to explore that. But there was really Herbie Hancock's Sunlight—that album. I discovered that, when I was seventeen I believe, and that album just changed my whole world. And from that point on I was dedicated to the vocoder. Now, as far as the electronics for the saxophone—I have always been an Eddie Harris fan and I've always been good friends with a lot of guitar players, so I always wanted to experiment the pedals. And during this time—this is also my teenage years—I was taken under the wing, as you can say. There was a collective of musicians in New York, called the Black Rock Coalition. They played like the Downtown scene, back when there was the old Knitting Factory on Church Street Downtown Manhattan. The first person I met who took me in was Melvin Gibbs. So, from Melvin Gibbs I met DJ Logic and then I met Vernon Reid and Brandon Ross and JT Lewis—all the pinnacle guys during that time, who were on that scene.

AAJ: In your generation one grows up with electronic toys, which don't have by all means to do with music. But electronics is sort of a normal thing in the everyday life of your generation. Does this have any connection to the music you play?

CB: To be honest, there was—because of what I do is so specialized—nobody doing what I was doing at that time, not the way I was doing it. First of all, there were no saxophone players who were doing vocoder and playing. Now you see a lot of these newer bands—all the saxophone players have a vocoder or they're doing pedals and it came from, not to toot in my own horn, but I was kind of like the first. There's obviously a lot of fans reaching out to me saying, "thank you for doing what you do, you're an inspiration to me to start doing this." But yea, at that time it was very unpopular to do what I was doing—and people made fun of me.

AAJ: You grew up in the NYC borough of Queens. Can you describe a little bit the musical influences that came from there to you—for example Jamaica funk as an important part of the musical culture in Queens?

CB: Growing up in South Jamaica, Queens had a—profound—influence on my development as a musician. All through, I guess it started with Weldon Irvine, who is considered the, I don't know, the godfather of Jamaica funk. At the time, I believe, he was managing Donald Blackman and Bernard Wright, he was looking over Marcus Miller, and Lenny White, Tom Browne, all these Jamaica Queens icons, Omar Hakim, tons of guys. So, when I was eleven, twelve—I believe it was every Tuesday or Thursday—Weldon Irvine and Bill Jacobs, another Queens musician—a vibraphonist, they were really good friends—they had this jazz workshop in Hollis, Queens and all these musicians would come down and jam and he would basically give lessons. I believe it was at Bill Jacobs' house—its basement—In Hollis, Queens. And all the musicians would go there. One time, Q-Tip [of hip-hop band A Tribe Called Quest] was there. It was just all the Queens musicians would go there.
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