U-Nam - Weekend in L.A.: A Tribute to George Benson

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U-Nam makes one goal of Weekend in L.A.: A Tribute to George Benson clear: He wants to pay honor to the guitarist who served as a major musical influence. However, because U-Nam himself is an innovator steeped in R&B and hip-hop along with jazz, he is not content to make the kind of record that Benson might have dropped in 1980. U-Nam incorporates those genres into this work in the same manner that Benson moved further along the jazz-pop road that Wes Montgomery was starting down prior to his untimely death in 1968.

U-Nam makes one goal of Weekend in L.A.: A Tribute to George Benson clear: He wants to pay honor to the guitarist who served as a major musical influence. However, because U-Nam himself is an innovator steeped in R&B and hip-hop along with jazz, he is not content to make the kind of record that Benson might have dropped in 1980. U-Nam incorporates those genres into this work in the same manner that Benson moved further along the jazz-pop road that Wes Montgomery was starting down prior to his untimely death in 1968.

Cuts such as U-Nam’s take on the classic “This Masquerade” reveal an artist who can render a heart-felt tribute to his idol in a manner that makes this version of the tune his own. Benson’s nuanced and deft guitar work, smoky and vulnerable vocals (that put well-deserved focus on lyrics that would have been right at home in the songbook era) and Jorge Dalto’s gentle piano solo made people forget that Leon Russell wrote the tune five years earlier and it had been covered by some heavy hitters prior to Benson’s treatment.

I can’t say that U-Nam and company wrested ownership of “This Masquerade” away from Benson in the manner that the latter took the tune away from its original composer. I have way too much history with this number to come to that conclusion. However, U-Nam’s reimagining of “This Masquerade” will fall easily on youthful ears,  as well as the ears of those who were around in 1976.

It all comes down to balance: Benson’s eight minute plus 1976 version gave the players ample room to improvise in the tradition of jazz while also providing Benson enough space to showcase his skills as an R&B vocalist. The arrangement on Weekend in L.A. clocks in at 11 minutes and 34 seconds, and U-Nam manages to strike a similar balance in this magisterial version. This song connects the old and the new. It features Tim “Tio” Owens’ buttery vocals as well as the gospel-tinged vocals of veteran crooner and SoulTracks favorite Phil Perry. Marcus Miller’s bass playing provides the track with the funk element that bridges the 1970s and the contemporary hip-hop soul era. George Duke’s keyboard work is classic in its jazz based creativity. However, its Jeff Lacey’s rap that transforms U-Nam’s version of “This Masquerade” into a memorably good cover. That’s right, I’m complimenting the insertion of a rap in the middle of an R&B song. First of all the rap is positioned perfectly between Duke’s keyboard solo and Perry’s church influenced rendition of the hook. Lacey wrote a rap that fits perfectly with the song’s theme about a couple with a public persona that is tragically at odds with their lives behind doors, and the way that Perry flows into his vocal at the end is nothing short of magical.

I purposely spent most of this review focusing on one track from Weekend in L.A. because Benson’s version of “This Masquerade” is both his best known and most popular song as well as the definitive version of the tune. The quality of U-Nam’s version speaks highly of the thought that went into crafting a version that would serve as a worthy tribute while also being distinct. Secondly, this tune represents the quality of the work on this album. I could just as easily focused on U-Nam’s  ultra-modern take on “Nature Boy,” or the version of “I Just Want to Hang Around You” that would have been right at home on a Mint Condition album from the 1990s.

Benson is a big fan of U-Nam. He contributes complimentary words on the album’s liner notes. It’s obvious to see what Benson finds appealing after listening to Weekend in L.A.  Benson is a great straight ahead jazz guitarist who found fame and controversy with his experiments that fused jazz, pop and R&B. It’s instructive that Benson used the word controversial to describe U-Nam’s music, and Benson does not use that word in a negative connotation. He sees U-Nam as a musical innovator, and controversy follows musical innovation. Fans eventually follow innovators, and U-Nam will win a few with this audacious tribute. Recommended

By Howard Dukes

 
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