I was 12-years old in 1976 when I first heard George Benson. By that time, Benson was already a highly respected veteran jazz guitarist. My first introduction to Benson was as the vocalist whom I mistook for Stevie Wonder. Of course, now I know that was Benson’s muscular tenor on “This Masquerade,” as it would be on “Love’s Ballad,” “On Broadway,” “Love X Love,” “Turn Your Love Around” and countless other records. It’s a testament to how the music industry changed during the 1970s that Benson felt the need to sing while fusing his signature jazz guitar playing with R&B. It’s also a testament to his talent that Benson was successfully able to do both.
The vocal is what separates Benson from a jazz guitarist such as the player with whom Benson is often linked, Wes Montgomery. Montgomery was one of the earliest adapters of the genre that became known as fusion and eventually contemporary jazz. His instrumental versions of pop songs like “Sunny” and tunes from movies like “The Shadow of Your Smile” had Montgomery’s star rising before his sudden death in 1968.
The ability to sing R&B music added to Benson’s marketability, but also made him a target for a lot of jazz purists. The irony for those who accuse Benson of selling out is that this is an artist who spent the last four decades making some high quality R&B records that also included a lot of jazz elements. That trend continues on Guitar Man, Benson’s latest recording of pop and jazz covers. If anything, Guitar Man should get a truth in advertising seal of approval because the title tells listeners what they are going to get. Some artists receive pub for their instrumental prowess that they rarely display on record, but that’s never been Benson’s modus operandi. Benson uses his guitar to create and improvise on each track. Okay, maybe not every track. The cover of Norah Jones’ “Don’t Know Why” is pretty vanilla. However, Benson and sideman Joe Sample follow that track up with an impressive instrumental conversation on the Michael Jackson “Lady Of My Life.”
Strings add a lush quality to The Beatles gem “I Want To Hold Your Hand.” However, the arrangement is what will open eyes and ears on this track. Benson transforms his guitar into a voice that moves in and around the rhythm section. Longtime Benson fans will catch the allusion to the song “Breezin’” that the artist adds around the three-minute mark. Of course, Guitar Man includes a fair share of vocal tracks. These tracks run the gamut from Motown (“My Cherie Amour”) to jazz standard (“My One and Only Love”) and classic soul (“Since I Fell for You”). Each track provides the listener with a balance of Benson’s vocals and his fingering. Benson puts on his music historian cap by including a version of John Coltrane’s “Niama.” The inclusion of this classic jazz tune might not be enough to quiet whatever purists remain, but after listening to this cut, they’ll have to acknowledge the only thing that matters – George Benson can play! Recommended.
By Howard Dukes