George Benson

Photo © Greg Allen

2009 NEA Jazz Master. NEA Jazz Masters Live
is a program of the National Endowment for the Arts in partnership with Arts Midwest that celebrates the living legends who have made exceptional contributions to the advancement of jazz.
 

So many times in contemporary popular music–in jazz, rock, blues, folk or beyond–the man with the guitar is the fulcrum on which all other sounds and voices hinge. He’s the core, the engine, the captain who leads and inspires the rest of the team.

George Benson has been that man for nearly a half-century. In a career that spans five decades, more than 30 recordings as a leader and 10 Grammy Awards, NEA Jazz Master George Benson has used his jazz roots as the foundation for an engaging mix of pop, R&B and other shades that add up to a style that appeals to a broad mainstream audience. Along the way, he has also established himself as a formidable jazz singer–one whose biggest career hits have showcased his vocals as well as his guitar chops–but at the end of the day, Benson has always been and will always be a guitar player first and foremost.

He brings that combination of passion and genius for his instrument to the forefront on Guitar Man, his 2011 recording on Concord Jazz. Following up on the successes of Givin’ It Up (2006) and Songs and Stories (2009), Guitar Man showcases Benson’s unchallenged–and arguably unmatched–reputation as a jazz virtuoso. The album’s 12 songs position him in both combo and solo settings, but all of them are tied together seamlessly by his soulful and exploratory signature sound.

Lending a hand on this recording is a solid team made up of veterans and newcomers alike–pianist Joe Sample, keyboardist and musical director David Garfield, bassist Ben Williams and drummer Harvey Mason. Williams is one of the hottest up-and-coming new artists on the jazz scene. Mason is a regular member of Fourplay, and a studio collaborator with Benson all the way back to Benson’s 1976 blockbuster album, Breezin’.

The crew came together in the studio with a minimum of prior rehearsal time but an eagerness to jump in and lay down tracks in something very close to the live experience–what Benson describes as an “old school” approach. The impromptu sensibility comes across in the final product, much of which came together with minimal takes in a single day of recording.

“We figured that we would get the best energy if we went into the studio with some live musicians who are savvy and flexible,” says Benson, “and boy, did we accomplish that. David has been my musical director for a number of years, and we were fortunate to get Joe and Harvey for this recording. I had never played with Ben before this project, but he understood everything I wanted before I could even get the words out of my mouth. We got six or seven songs recorded in a single day, and Ben was like the glue that held them all together.”

The setting was loose and informal, a vibe that Benson prefers in the studio. “I think our producer, John Burk, realized that I work better when I’m in the center of the floor, just passing out ideas,” he says. “I understand what my musicians can do, I know where they excel, and I try not to play past them or take things to a place where they shouldn’t go. I’m very comfortable with records like this–off the cuff, arranged as you go.”

From the very beginning, Benson has embraced this improvisational approach to recording and performing. At age eight, he was already singing and playing the ukulele in local nightclubs in his native Pittsburgh. By his teenage years, he had switched from ukulele to guitar, and he had stopped singing for the most part to focus more on his instrumental work. His musical sensibilities shifted toward jazz, due in large part to his exposure to records by Wes Montgomery, Charlie Christian and Charlie Parker.

By the early ’60s, Benson had joined organist Jack McDuff’s band–a gig that was educational but short-lived. He left to form his own band and launch his solo career with the 1964 album, The New Boss Guitar (a nod to Montgomery’s album, Boss Guitar, released just a year earlier). The album caught the attention of Columbia talent scout John Hammond, who signed him to the label. Benson recorded two solo albums for Columbia and played session dates for numerous other artists, including Miles Davis’ 1968 opus, Miles in the Sky.

He left Columbia in the late ’60s and recorded on a number of labels for the next several years. All the while, he’d been looking for a way to redevelop his vocals and make them part of his overall repertoire, but most of the producers and record execs at the time dismissed the idea, which became a source of growing frustration. But producer Tommy LiPuma saw the idea differently, and the result was Breezin’, the 1976 blockbuster album that marked the beginning of a long association with Warner Brothers. The first jazz record to achieve platinum sales, Breezin’ yielded a number of hits, including the instrumental title track, the soulful update of Leon Russell’s “This Masquerade” and the lively “Give Me The Night.”

Throughout the remainder of the ’70s and into the ’80s, Benson and LiPuma crafted a string of great records that collectively cemented the guitarist’s global reputation. In the mid-’90s, Benson followed LiPuma to the GRP label, where the two basically picked up where they’d left off at Warners. High points from the period include That’s Right (1996) and Standing Together (1998).

Since the start of the millennium, Benson has shown no signs of slowing down. Some of his more notable offerings of the past decade include the sexy and soulful Irreplaceable (2004), and Givin’ It Up (2006), a duet recording with Al Jarreau that scored two Grammy Awards and marked his Concord debut. Songs and Stories followed in 2009, with the help of some high-profile guest musicians: guitarists Lee Ritenour, Steve Lukather and Norman Brown; vocalists Lalah Hathaway and Patti Austin; keyboardist David Paich; bassist and co-producer Marcus Miller and several others.

Guitar Man may be a scaled back recording in comparison with its predecessor, but the smaller roster of players has no trouble generating a healthy dose of creative energy. The opening track, “Tenderly,” is an acoustic solo guitar track that serves as a reminder that Benson is one guitar man with sufficient technical and interpretive skills to be a band unto himself. The second track–an intriguing rendition of Lennon and McCartney’s “I Want To Hold Your Hand”–actually features a fuller lineup than that found in the tracks that follow. Along with Benson on nylon-string guitar and Garfield on piano on the Lennon/McCartney track are guitarists Paul Jackson Jr. and Ray Fuller; bassist Freddie Washington; drummer Oscar Seaton, Jr. (who regularly tours with Benson); violinist Charlie Bisharat; and flutist/clarinetist Dan Higgins. All come together to create a fully orchestrated sound that casts one of the most simplistic of the Beatles’ early love ballads into something full-bodied and engaging.

The remainder of the set features the aforementioned five-man team, which lays down an easygoing rendition of Stevie Wonder’s “My Cherie Amour.” Benson delivers the lyrics here in his own engaging vocal style that includes a healthy dose of his trademark scatting as guitar accompaniment.

Benson and company throw down a rollicking version of the Champs’ 1958 instrumental pop classic “Tequila” (a nod to Wes Montgomery and his well known cover of the song), then shift gears just a couple tracks later on “My One and Only Love,” the Guy Wood/Robert Mellin tune made famous by vocalist Johnny Hartman. The track opens with a 16-bar solo jazz guitar intro that segues into a sweet vocal ballad. “I’m not Johnny Hartman,” says Benson, “but I think there are a lot of Hartman fans who might appreciate an arrangement like that.”

Other highlights include a playful straightahead reading of “Paper Moon” with the quartet, followed by a solo guitar rendition of “Danny Boy.” Listen closely to the guitar introduction on the latter track, as Benson makes his strings sound like bagpipes. Gestures like this, however brief and subtle, clearly demonstrate why he’s is considered one of the greatest guitar players in the world.

In the final stretch, Benson and Garfield set up a lush guitar-and-piano arrangement of the smoky standard, “Since I Fell for You,” with Benson once again stepping up to the mic for an emotional delivery of the song’s impassioned lyrics.

The set closes with the driving and syncopated “Fingerlero,” written by Ronnie Foster, Benson’s collaborator from back in the Breezin’ era and a musician whom he considers “the greatest keyboard player in the world.” Foster sent the track to Benson on a whim, and the guitarist instantly recognized its rhythmic intrigue. “I knew before he sent it that it was going to be unusual, but I didn’t know how unusual,” says Benson. “It was so interesting that we had to try it. David wrote out the changes for the guys. We did it a couple times and it worked. It had a really unique vibe to it.”

Indeed, Benson has never been one to shy away from the unique or the innovative. For this guitar man, putting a jazz spin on pop standards – not just on this recording but throughout his career – is less of a taboo when you’re willing to dispense with labels and the limitations that come with them.

“People categorize things because they need to find someplace to put them on their shelf,” he says. “It’s all music to me. I think a lot of pop tunes that were very big in the United States many years ago were recorded by jazz musicians playing in the background. Most of the Motown records were recorded that way. Those guys were jazz musicians who were living in Detroit and were called to do a job, and they did it very well…I try to do the same thing. I try to make it sound like it’s natural, because to me it is. There are only two kinds of music, good and bad. There are a lot of things in between, but they’re eventually going to fall on one side or the other of that equation.”

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