George Benson - Inspiration: A Tribute to Nat King Cole (2013)

George Benson
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If we had been there at the beginning when Little Georgie Benson strummed on his guitar and sang “Mona Lisa,” we would have known that the man known as George Benson was destined to be a double threat. We also would have seen the album Inspiration (A Tribute to Nat King Cole) coming.

Benson was eight when we won a talent contest in his native Pittsburgh. The prize turned out to be a date in a recording studio. Little Georgie decided to sing “Mona Lisa.” The song appears on Inspiration two additional times.  One is a faithful rendition of the Nelson Riddle arrangement that made “Mona Lisa” the biggest hit of Cole’s career.  That arrangement is representative of the most of the 14 tunes heard on Inspiration. But the other is an interesting moment where Benson shakes things up, providing a calypso styled interpretation of that classic.

If we had been there at the beginning when Little Georgie Benson strummed on his guitar and sang “Mona Lisa,” we would have known that the man known as George Benson was destined to be a double threat. We also would have seen the album Inspiration (A Tribute to Nat King Cole) coming.

Benson was eight when we won a talent contest in his native Pittsburgh. The prize turned out to be a date in a recording studio. Little Georgie decided to sing “Mona Lisa.” The song appears on Inspiration two additional times.  One is a faithful rendition of the Nelson Riddle arrangement that made “Mona Lisa” the biggest hit of Cole’s career.  That arrangement is representative of the most of the 14 tunes heard on Inspiration. But the other is an interesting moment where Benson shakes things up, providing a calypso styled interpretation of that classic.

Twists like Benson’s alternative take on “Mona Lisa” are the kinds of creative choices that elevate Inspiration from a pretty good Nat King Cole tribute album to a very good one. From the bouncy, upbeat melody to the Caribbean percussion and very contemporary R&B styled work on the drums, it’s clear from the outset that this is not your grandfather’s “Mona Lisa.”

“Unforgettable” sports a bossa nova arrangement. The tune also features some solo work from guest trumpeter Wynton Marsalis. Hearing Benson - the artist who advanced the concept of contemporary jazz to a level not imagined by the late great guitarist Wes Montgomery – creating music with Marsalis, the world’s most famous teacher and advocate of straight ahead jazz, is a singular treat.

Vocally, Benson has likely never sounded better. Benson turned 70 in March. Yet he sells his duet of “Too Young” with the 29 year-old Judith Hill from the get go. The two harmonize wonderfully, and the same thing can be said about his duet with “Wicked” star Idina Menzel on “When I Fall in Love.”

Inspiration includes many Cole favorites such as “Straighten Up and Fly Right,” “Smile” and (Get Your Kicks On) Route 66.” Benson doesn’t shy away from including underappreciated tunes from the Nat King Cole canon such as “I’m Gonna Sit Right Down and Write Myself a Letter” and “Ballerina.”  The latter is an excellent song that tells the story of a ballerina who has to deal with the consequences of choosing her career over love. Following that track with “Smile” is nothing short of inspired.

Benson’s great guitar playing originally garnered national attention for him; however, his voice transformed him into a star. And now, a half century into his career, on Inspiration George Benson relies on both talents and his own personal look back at his childhood hero to make yet another memorable addition to his impressive discography. Recommended.

By Howard Dukes

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