Inspiration: A Tribute To Nat King Cole

George Benson

Concord, 2013

REVIEW BY: Mark Millan


Two years ago, George Benson and producer John Burk got together and recorded a wonderful album of covers, Guitar Man, which featured standards and a selection of classic pop songs from the ‘60s and ‘70s. The pair teamed up again this year along with the Henry Mancini Institute Orchestra and a handful of special guests to again work their magic on a tribute album to the late great Nat King Cole. What I love about their work is that they don’t monkey with the original songs much at all; they just re-record them with a few new subtleties that help keep them fresh but still instantly recognizable.

Benson is now seventy years old but his voice is still as smooth as ever; also in fine form is his ability to scat and improvise. His performance throughout the disc is superb, and although Cole had such a rich voice that could make even a mediocre song sound precious, Benson delivers these gems with a confidence and diligence that may not sound as powerful as the originals, but they do them justice for sure. The album is full of glorious performances and arrangements and the song selection (by which a lot of these projects live or die) is spot on, as was the utmost care in recreating them. There is a wonderfully swinging version of “Ballerina” and a bluesy swing through “Route 66” that are both among the album’s finest moments.  my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250

Benson was also careful when it came to selecting his duet partners for a couple of tracks to ensure there would be no unnecessary vocal gymnastics or whaling. The lovely India Menzel joins him for a beautiful rendition of “When I Fall In Love,” which you would think would be an impossible task to stuff up but so many have. Judith Hill guests on the lesser known but equally touching “Too Young,” which thanks to her is the album’s most soulful track. Benson’s vocal range is best tested on my favorite track here “Nature Boy” and I’m pleased to say that he passes with flying colors. It’s a more subtle reading than Cole’s take, but that’s understandable, and a great song is a great song is a great song.

The big hits of the day are all here and they turned out just fine, too. The incomparable Sheila E joins the party to add some percussion to “Unforgettable,” “Walkin’ My Baby Back Home,” and “Smile.” The only curious inclusion here is the album’s opener, which is a short version of “Mona Lisa” performed by the eight-year-old ‘Lil George Benson who is self-accompanied on ukulele; it’s a cute way to open the record and Benson’s proper version closes out the disc, so I’m not complaining. 

This really is a fine album full of great songs and excellent performances and would act as a great introduction to both Nat King Cole and George Benson.

Rating: A-

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