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!"
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