Just the two of us
Crossover stars have a taste for the unexpected, writes Robin Lynam
George Benson and Al Jarreau first recorded together in 1989 - alongside Jon Hendricks and Bobby McFerrin on Hendricks' version of Miles Davis' Freddie Freeloader - but it took another 16 years to produce a collaborative CD.
Givin' it Up on Concord Records, which the two artists recorded in 2006 with an all-star cast of musicians, won two Grammy awards and, as Benson puts it, 'at a time when the record business isn't doing so great it sold pretty well'.
One reason for that may be a cast of supporting players that includes Herbie Hancock, Marcus Miller, Patrice Rushen, Vinnie Colaiuta, Chris Botti, Dean Parks and Stanley Clarke, augmented by guest vocalists Jill Scott, Patti Austin and Paul McCartney.
'When they heard we were going to be recording, a lot of people came out of the woodwork,' Benson says with satisfaction.
Hong Kong audiences have the chance to hear tunes from the album - or some of them at least - live at the Convention and Exhibition Centre next month.
The format of the show gives each artist a 30-minute solo spot, interspersed with some duet performances. However, it's the interaction between two of the most successful crossover acts of the past 40 years that will be the big draw.
'We're kind of cut from the same cloth, George and I,' says Jarreau. 'It's just that our voices are different timbres. We were raised and reared on jazzy stuff and allowing that to influence the R&B and pop music that we do makes us akin.
'It did take some thinking through to figure out how we were going to handle vocals. How our voices would pair up - who should go where - and obviously we were going to harmonise some things. It was pretty magical.'
The harmonious nature of the sessions is reflected in the two opening cuts - Benson's 1976 instrumental hit Breezin' and one of Jarreau's most popular tunes Mornin' - with the two principals swapping their lead parts.
Jarreau wrote a lyric for Breezin' and sings the melody while Benson echoes him on guitar. Conversely, Mornin' becomes an instrumental, led by Benson's guitar, while Jarreau contributes backing vocals and his trademark 'vocal percussion'.
'I thought George played some things that people had wanted to hear out of George for a long time, and that's great,' says Jarreau.
Mornin' won the 2006 Grammy for best pop instrumental performance while the album's other statuette was shared with Jill Scott for a vocal percussion driven version of Billie Holiday's God Bless the Child.
Scott was originally brought in to sing on another tune, Let it Rain - eventually recorded with Patti Austin - but asked if she could have a shot at the Holiday song instead. Both tracks made the album.
'Jill laid it out beautifully with my bass line. That was the setting for it, so we had this almost hip hop feel for the song,' says Jarreau.
It was not the only happy accident of the sessions. McCartney was working in the next studio, and was persuaded to sing on the album's closer - the Sam Cooke classic, Bring it on Home to Me.
'He happened to be recording his own album in the same building and he wanted to meet Al Jarreau,' chuckles Benson, who once recorded a jazz remake of the Beatles' entire Abbey Road album.
'I was the only one in the studio who knew him, and there were all these musicians whose jaws dropped.
'They happened to have that song playing and I asked him if he knew it, because he knows a lot of R&B and African-American music.
'He said yes, so I said, 'How about putting a couple of licks on that for us?' Nobody could believe I'd asked him that - and then they couldn't believe it when he said yes.'
Jarreau got the inspiration for one of the album's new compositions during a pre-production meeting in the Concord Records offices when a cup of coffee he had requested was inadvertently given to Benson.
'I said 'George, I believe that's my cup of coffee you have there and I want my coffee', and George said, 'Don't start no schtuff' - and that's the name of a song.
'We picked songs which would give us a broad repertoire, and avoided what people thought we might do.
'Both of our histories have us doing mostly R&B and pop songs, but with this jazzy interwoven tone on it. That's how we picked songs - Summer Breeze and Everytime You Go Away,' Jarreau explains.
However, there should be plenty for Jarreau and Benson's more jazz-minded following to enjoy during the concert.
The album also includes Jarreau's vocal reinterpretation of Marcus Miller's composition for Miles Davis, Tutu, which features Miller on bass and Herbie Hancock on piano.
Their association also comes full circle with a swinging version of Davis' Four arranged around another Hendricks lyric.
'We've been touring already with the CD,' says Jarreau, 'and this is a continuation of the tour. We've had a break from it for several months now and we're cranking it up again, bringing this music to the Far East. That's special.'
George Benson and Al Jarreau, Sept 12, 8pm, Convention and Exhibition Centre, Harbour Rd, Wan Chai, HK$590-HK$990, HK Ticketing, Tom Lee. Inquiries 2266 8621