George Benson: the good, the bad and the groovy

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 30 July, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 30 July, 2006, 12:00am

Jazz musicians aren't normally associated with early rising, and George Benson is no exception. I was assigned to interview him for the Post a few years ago, over the phone, prior to a scheduled concert appearance here, and was puzzled to be given 9am New York time as the slot.

Benson turned out to be quite surprised too. He'd spent the previous night out late in one of the city's jazz clubs, where he still likes to hang out, and I had roused him from a deep sleep. He nevertheless quickly pulled his wits together and talked with great intelligence and insight about the New York scene.

It was only after about 40 minutes that he confided that his bladder was bursting, and that he'd really be quite grateful if I'd get off the line.

I have to admit that, although I knew his shows here would consist mostly of R&B hits - Turn Your Love Around, The Greatest Love of All, Never Give up on a Good Thing etc - I asked only a few questions about them.

Benson the jazzman was what interested me, and it was, after all, Benson the pop singer who - with the connivance of producers Tommy LiPuma and Quincy Jones - more or less buried him.

The history of jazz is full of artists who have managed pop careers while remaining credible as jazz musicians, the first and greatest being Louis Armstrong. Nat King Cole is another obvious example.

Benson for some reason has not. Critically highly acclaimed as a jazz guitarist before his pop breakthrough with the Breezin' album and its big vocal hit single, Leon Russell's This Masquerade, once his audience expanded Benson, on the whole, stuck to a policy of giving it what it wanted. He continued to smuggle a little jazz into R&B shows, and to sit in unannounced with jazz musician friends on club gigs, but he did nothing to risk confusing the bulk of his audience.

Eventually, of course, that audience contracted, and in recent years Benson has had a crack at re-establishing himself as an instrumentalist in the smooth jazz market - now a natural enough niche for him. None of those recordings, sadly, has the spirit of the early work that had him topping jazz guitar polls and being hailed as the next Wes Montgomery.

It has been a chequered career, and even his early jazz recordings, though excellent in parts, are patchy. He's a natural candidate for anthologising, and his catalogue has indeed been extensively recycled, but until now very poorly.

Of the most recent packages the excruciatingly titled The Greatest Hits Of All ignores the jazz side of Benson almost entirely, while Best of George Benson: The Instrumentals does his mostly lightweight smooth jazz recordings no particular service by separating them from the vocals alongside which they were intended to be heard.

Just released in Hong Kong, however, is the Essential George Benson, a two-CD set which will serve as an excellent primer for those who want to investigate Benson the jazzman further, and for those with a more casual interest probably contains every track of his you are ever really likely to want.

This is the first collection to represent both the jazz guitarist and the pop singer, but to give most of the weight to the former. Only three of the R&B hits are here - the full-length versions of This Masquerade, On Broadway and Give Me the Night, all of which are overexposed but none of which is entirely without merit - and the remaining 18 selections are all obvious highpoints of his jazz career, both as a leader and as a sideman.

The first disc features two tracks with Brother Jack McDuff, with whose organ trio Benson made his name, proceeding to representative selections from It's Uptown, recorded with organist Lonnie Smith, and Beyond the Blue Horizon, arguably the best of his 1960s albums, featuring Clarence Palmer on organ and the wonderful rhythm section of Ron Carter on bass and Jack DeJohnette on drums. Benson's reinterpretation of Miles Davis' much-covered So What is one of few to bring anything new to the tune, and Davis apparently loved it.

Also included here are two landmark sessions for other artists - the guest appearance with Davis on Wayne Shorter's Paraphernalia from Miles in the Sky, and Stanley Turrentine's enormously popular Sugar. The disc closes with a big production version of the Mamas & the Papas California Dreamin', which points the way for much of the music on the second CD.

Rather than play out with Benson the pop star the CD concludes with two high-profile sideman appearances - one on his own Hip Skip for drummer Tony Williams with Michael Brecker on tenor sax, and finally Gotham City, a 1981 session for tenor giant Dexter Gordon with Cedar Walton on piano, Percy Heath on bass and Art Blakey on drums. That's quite a band.

And this is quite a collection.