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Remembering musician Casey Benjamin of the Robert Glasper Experiment, dead at 45

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Jazz and hip-hop musicians are paying tribute to Casey Benjamin, who died March 30. Benjamin played saxophone, keyboards and other instruments. He also sang. According to a statement from his family, Benjamin was, quote, "recovering from a recent surgery," and they are still gathering all the facts. He was 45 years old. NPR's Elizabeth Blair has this appreciation.

ELIZABETH BLAIR, BYLINE: Casey Benjamin was a key member of the Robert Glasper Experiment, a group known for breaking boundaries with their blend of hip-hop, jazz and R&B. Glasper met Benjamin when they were studying music at The New School in New York in the '90s.

ROBERT GLASPER: He does so many things so good. We called him the ninja musician.

(SOUNDBITE OF ROBERT GLASPER EXPERIMENT SONG, "THIS IS NOT FEAR")

BLAIR: Glasper says he and Benjamin bonded over their love for Herbie Hancock.

GLASPER: Like, we used to, like, mimic Herbie's movement while he's playing. It was like, Casey knows how to mimic the movements of Herbie.

BLAIR: Casey Benjamin especially liked Hancock's use of the vocoder.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "COME RUNNING TO ME")

HERBIE HANCOCK: (Singing) Baby fell down, lost her way.

NATE CHINEN, BYLINE: The sound of Herbie's voice filtered through this Sennheiser vocoder, you know, and processed with these analog synthesizers - this becomes, you know, this touchstone for Casey Benjamin.

BLAIR: Nate Chinen writes about jazz. He's also the editorial director at WRTI, a public radio station in Philadelphia.

CHINEN: And he spent just an inordinate amount of time tinkering and experimenting with his own vocoders, trying to get a version of this sound that was his.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

CASEY BENJAMIN: (Singing) You want to take it all the way.

CHINEN: He made it a fully expressive instrument - you know? - and really used it as an extension of his own voice.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SMELLS LIKE TEEN SPIRIT")

BENJAMIN: (Singing) With the lights out, it's less dangerous. Here we are now. Entertain us. I feel stupid and contagious...

BLAIR: Casey Benjamin grew up in Jamaica, Queens, N.Y. His father, a musician and DJ, was from Grenada. His mother was from Panama. Through his association with Robert Glasper and Q-Tip from A Tribe Called Quest, Benjamin ended up playing on songs by lots of artists, including Beyonce, Solange and Lupe Fiasco.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "STRANGE FRUITION")

BENJAMIN: (Singing) Oh, look at how they swing. Would you look at how they swing?

BLAIR: Again, Nate Chinen.

CHINEN: He was so prolific as a collaborator - you know, really kind of a musician's musician. But also, because he was such a dynamic performer, anybody who knew the Robert Glasper Experiment - they knew his name.

GLASPER: So having him a part of my band was just amazing because, you know, he added so much flavor to it, so much style to it.

BLAIR: Casey Benjamin did have style - long braids, sometimes with a shock of pink running through them.

GLASPER: He was a character in himself, you know? But he was one of one.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "FOR YOU")

BENJAMIN: (Singing through vocoder) I love you - wonder if you love me, too. Taiwa, you're the only one who knew (ph).

BLAIR: Glasper says Casey Benjamin had fans around the world. Wherever they went, he would hear them call out his nickname, Stutz McGee. He says what he'll miss most about his friend and fellow musician is his big, infectious smile.

Elizabeth Blair, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "FOR YOU")

BENJAMIN: (Singing through vocoder) Maybe that day has come and gone away. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Elizabeth Blair is a Peabody Award-winning senior producer/reporter on the Arts Desk of NPR News.
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