The Essential George Benson
REVIEW BY: Michael Broyles
ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED: 08/04/2009
The first time I met guitar and vocal extraordinaire George Benson was in a small jazz club in downtown
Flash-forward a year and I am writing a review on The Essential George Benson, a 2006 revue of his work with written song-by-song commentary by Benson. The two-disc set spans Benson’s career, giving a broad understanding of his musical evolution. Much of disc one focuses on the traditional jazz that populated the first part of his career. It contains his early work with the Jack McDuff Quartet (“Rocky Candy” and “Shadow Dancers”), an upbeat vocal version of Gershwin’s “A Foggy Day,” his short stint as a sideman for Miles Davis with the avant-garde “Paraphernalia,” and his time as Stanley Turrentine’s guitarist with the powerfully raw “Sugar.” While these are all worth a listen, especially “A Foggy Day” and “Sugar,” it is with Miles Davis’ “So What” that Benson finds his voice on the guitar. This is the Benson who has forever made his mark on American music! The ease with which he mixes funk, rock, and jazz foreshadows his hit-making period chronicled in disc two.
The second starts with Benson’s Grammy-nominated “White Rabbit,” a flamenco tune Benson describes as “really overdone in terms of production.” Following “White Rabbit,” Benson brings the funk with the original “Body Talk” and a soulful rendition of Dave Brubeck’s “Take Five.” After beautifully singing another Gershwin song, “Summertime,” the disc moves into his four biggest hits: “Breezin’,” “This Masqeurade,” “On Broadway,” and “Give Me The Night.” The indelibly smooth “Breezin’” is easy listening at its best: soft guitar tones, a singable guitar/flute motif, no vocals, and lush strings. In contrast, “This Masquerade” is a powerful, dynamic, and oft gritty exploration of dysfunctional relationships, reminiscent of Sinatra’s “Send In The Clowns.” “On Broadway” is probably Benson’s most famous recording, as it deserves to be. His vocals on this live track are amazing and his vocal/guitar solo is killer. Classic Benson! Melodic, progressive, and endearing. Ending Benson’s four consecutive hits is “Give Me The Night,” which was produced by Quincy Jones and written by Rod Temperton of “Thriller” fame. Benson’s smooth R&B vocals and rhythmic guitar playing make this a sweet, romantic experience. The last two songs on disc two, “Hip Skip” with Tony Williams and “
Commenting on “This Masquerade” in the liner notes, Benson recalls producer Tommy LiPuma remarking, “I can’t understand why they are not using your [Benson’s] voice.” I found myself wondering the same thing. Presumably, Benson first gained popularity as a guitar player and was subsequently hired to do that. And Benson undoubtedly filled that role well, marvelously fitting into the long tradition of jazz guitarists like Django Reinhardt and Charlie Christian. But Benson also has a beautiful voice, as I luckily experienced that night in the jazz club. It is a wonder the record company didn’t use it more. Notice that three out of the four biggest hits on this album were vocal tracks. Also note that the only vocal track on the less hit-filled disc one is “A Foggy Day.” And why is 1981’s “Turn Your Love Around” missing from this collection? With its romantic melody and groveling vocals, it also deserves to be one of Benson’s essentials.
In the end, this history-laden album contains some amazing music. It presents Benson as a Jack-of-all-trades: a brilliant guitarist, productive songwriter, and soulful singer with, as the back cover states, “matinee-idol good looks.” My only complaint is that they should have showcased his voice more. Sure, Benson is a great guitarist. But couldn’t they let the cat sing?