May 22, 2024

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Casey Benjamin, saxophone and vocoder wizard in the Robert Glasper Experiment, is dead at 45: Video, Photos

Casey Benjamin, whose saxophone gleam and vocoder-processed singing exerted a deep influence on the last 20 years of jazz-infused hip-hop and R&B, died on March 30 in Maryland. He was 45.

His death was confirmed by his manager, Sapna Lal, who said he had been recovering from surgery.

Adept on keyboards and electronics as well as saxophones and flute, Benjamin was a versatile collaborator across genre lines. He maintained a close musical partnership with the rapper and producer Q-Tip, and contributed to albums by Solange, Sinkane and Pusha T, among others. He also toured with artists including Patrick Stump of Fall Out Boy, and co-led an R&B project called HEAVy with the singer-songwriter Nicole Guiland.

But his most visible contribution came as a member of two consequential bands: Blackout, led by the vibraphonist Stefon Harris, and the Robert Glasper Experiment, with whom he won two Grammy awards, for Best R&B Album and Best Traditional R&B Performance.

“Casey was one of the most gifted and talented beings ever,” Robert Glasper, the band’s namesake pianist, composer and producer, tells WRTI. “He was the epitome of what it means to be unique and one of a kind. The true meaning of a genius at his craft. There is no Robert Glasper Experiment without him. The world lost a giant and I lost a brother. I’m forever honored to have shared the stage and my life with him.”

Benjamin had a fluent, fervent sound on alto saxophone, and a full, rounded tone on soprano — stamping both with a balance of imploring emotional drive and impressive technical control. His ardor and articulacy went hand in hand, evoking a shining predecessor like Kenny Garrett and providing a blueprint for smart successors like Terrace Martin. With his sharp fashion sense and extroverted stage presence, he served as a de facto front man both in the Experiment and in Blackout, where he first began exploring the dynamic impact of singing through electronic filters.

The vocoder, which synthesizes the human voice to robotically expressive effect, enjoyed a vogue during the prog-rock and synth-pop boom of the 1970s. It had been relegated to the realm of retro camp, supplanted by Auto-Tune, when Benjamin — infatuated with the instrument ever since hearing Herbie Hancock deploy it on the 1978 album Sunlight — took it up as a trademark. His steadfast refinement of a vocoder sound, achieved through painstaking tinkering, produced a signature voice, and a new chapter. It was only after Benjamin brought the vocoder back into heavy use that Hancock made it a centerpiece of his show again; others, like Terrace Martin, also embraced the technology in live and studio settings.

Along with the vocoder, Benjamin featured synthetic instruments like the keytar — hybridist totems, reflecting his core principles. “I never consider myself to be a jazz musician,” he said in 2019, speaking with Barbara Ina Frenz for All About Jazz. “For one, I didn’t start off playing quote-unquote ‘jazz,’ I started playing pop music and R&B music and stuff like that. And also, just because I play all styles of music. It is that jazz is just the spine of so many derivatives. Basically, popular music, all the different genres, are derivatives of jazz. It all comes from jazz.”

Born in Brooklyn, NY on Oct. 10, 1978, Casey Benjamin grew up in the Jamaica neighborhood of Queens. He was part of a vibrant Afro-Caribbean community there; his father, Gentle Benjamin, had migrated from Grenada, and his mother, Julieta Benjamin, had come from Panama. The kaleidoscopic musical landscape of his youth included soca and salsa music as well as the early stirrings of hip-hop, and he had a tangible role model in his father, a bassist and DJ who specialized in funk and R&B.

He is survived by his parents as well as his partner, Whitley Davis; a brother, Kevin Benjamin; and two sisters, Nicole Benjamin and Cristina King.

Casey Benjamin performs with the Robert Glasper Experiment at the 2014 Essence Music Festival in New Orleans.
Casey Benjamin performs with the Robert Glasper Experiment at the 2014 Essence Music Festival in New Orleans.

The piano was his first instrument. He started playing saxophone in fifth grade, quickly discovering a natural affinity for the instrument. Soon he was receiving encouragement from mentors in Queens, including the pianist and composer Weldon Irvine, who held a regular jam session at his home. By the time young Casey enrolled in LaGuardia High School, a performing arts magnet, he was already working with a kid reggae band called KRE A SHAN, which landed a record deal but broke up before it could bear fruit.

At the New School, where Benjamin enrolled on a scholarship, he met Glasper and a handful of other open-minded jazz musicians, like the saxophonist Marcus Strickland. “From the beginning, he had his own thing, and such a deep sense of soul and connection with the music,” drummer Terreon Gully tells WRTI. “Because his love for all kinds of music came across in his playing.”

Through Gully, whom he met in the late 1990s, Benjamin became a part of the defiantly genre-agnostic crew that comprised Blackout — a band that drew sustenance from D.C. go-go, funk and new-jack rhythm even as it operated as a high-functioning post-bop unit. The band released three studio albums — Evolution (2004), Urbanus (2009) and Sonic Creed (2018) — and has another on the way, most likely releasing next year.

Gully also introduced Benjamin to the electric bassist Melvin Gibbs, a member of the Black Rock Coalition and soon another of his New York mentors. “I feel like it’s just now that the music we call jazz and the music we call hip-hop have come to some sort of marriage,” Gibbs tells WRTI. “My generation tried to do it — but for some of those guys, it was a science experiment, in a certain way. Whereas for Casey, he had all the ingredients, because he came up in New York, and came up amongst a lot of guys of my generation who really understood music. But he also was an integral part of a lot of hip-hop people’s journeys into live music. So he was actually the perfect person to encapsulate what all of that should sound like as a totality.”

Through the Robert Glasper Experiment’s series of celebrated Black Radio albums, Benjamin played an integral role in all-star sessions with the likes of Erykah Badu, Brandy and Faith Evans. But he also increasingly stepped forward as a singer-songwriter in his own right — notably on the 2016 album ArtScience, which intersperses original songs with choice covers, including Hancock’s “Tell Me a Bedtime Story.” One song co-written by Benjamin and Glasper, “No One Like You,” captures his signature meld of sleek surface tension and sophisticated harmonic underlay; it features his vocals, only lightly processed, along with a Wayne Shorter-esque soprano sax solo.

“Casey was my brother. Our brother,” bassist and composer Derruck Hodge, a charter member of the Robert Glasper Experiment, tells WRTI. “From the first day I met and heard him, it was clear that his unmistakable sound, style, and way of exploring music opened up the minds of all around him to what is possible. Even the attempt to now define his creative genius is limiting, [given] how multifaceted his impact truly was, and continues to be.”

Casey Benjamin performing with the Robert Glasper Experiment at the Monterey Jazz Festival.

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