George Benson. Inspiration: A Tribute To Spotify.)(Available to audition on
Consider the amazing career of George Benson: a child prodigy emerging from the Hill District of Pittsburgh to become a leading jazz guitarist in the sixties, he was a major force in making soulful jazz a sound that could co-exist in the rock world.
But no one could have predicted how Benson would explode in the seventies, when he added his singing voice to a cover of Leon Russell’s “This Masquerade,” and followed that massive hit with a string of popular albums that would keep him recording, touring, and performing for the next 35 years and more.
Now, at 70, he has released the ultimate tribute album, which recognizes his long-stated debt to Nat King Cole, and proves that Benson ranks at the same level of artistry. He capitalizes on a longevity of which Cole was deprived by his death from lung cancer at 46, and creates one of the top Songbook albums of 2013. Daring to cop original arrangements by Nelson Riddle, but adding comparable ones by pianist-producer-conductor Randy Waldman; meeting Cole standards head-on vocally, but welcoming smart guest artists like Idina Menzel and Judith Hill to the party; and staying faithful to the Cole sound while using his solos and scat doubling to Bensonize the music are all successful strategies on this album. It’s a tribute that makes you want to hear the originals again without really needing to.
The album is impressive technically as well as for the lasting beauty of the songs, which include all of Cole’s biggest hits prior to his “country” period in the early sixties, when his increasingly gravelly, compromised tone would become characteristic on songs like “Ramblin’ Rose.” Benson shows no such signs of deterioration, with little noticeable change from the voice that leapt out on 1976’s Breezin’. The album starts out simply with a concept-album touch, an early-50’s recording of “Mona Lisa” with Little Georgie Benson on vocals and ukulele. Then the adult Benson bursts to the front with a supercharged version of Cole Porter’s “Just One of Those Things,” backed up by the Henry Mancini Institute Orchestra, which is superb throughout the album. (The orchestra, from Miami’s Frost School of Music, is led by artistic director and famed jazz trumpeter-composer Terence Blanchard, who produced the orchestra for the album.)
Nat King Cole did not inject drama into his readings the way Sinatra aspired to, preferring to let his rich voice, good taste, and jazz-pianist sensibility give the song its character. Benson’s soulful crooning occupies a similar space, so tracks like “When I Fall in Love” (Victor Young and Edward Heyman) are made unique by the soaring belt of Broadway vet Idina Menzel. Instead of modulating the classically ultra-romantic strings and pianism of “Too Young” (Sidney Lippman, Sylvia Dee) in Cole’s version, Benson and crew double down, making the paean to lovers entering adulthood an earnest duet with the soulful Judith Hill, who helps Benson reassert the original meaning of the lyric. Wynton Marsalis’s trumpet coolly punctuates “Unforgettable” (Irving Gordon), which benefits from a new bossa nova treatment, and “Smile” (Chaplin, Turner, Parsons) features the German trumpeter Till Brönner’s more linear trumpet solo. An expert trio of background vocalists give a Take 6 vibe to Cole’s own “Straighten Up and Fly Right” (with Irving Mills).
Benson had covered Cole before, giving “Nature Boy,” the pre-disco R&B treatment on 1976’s In Flight. Here, it’s back to the Riddle arrangement, one of the classics of pop history, to recapture the mystery of the Eden Ahbez-penned fantasy of the boy who travelled “very far, very far.” This is followed by “Ballerina” (often called by its opening lyric “Dance Ballerina Dance”), a hit for Vaughn Monroe in 1947, which was jacked up by Riddle’s arrangement for Cole ten years later. The Benson version slightly tones down that effort, which seemed to emulate the vibe created by Stan Kenton for Cole’s “Orange Colored Sky” (not included on the Benson tribute). The result is that the Bob Russell-Carl Sigman words and melody come through more clearly, with less arrangement making for more swing. (Trivia: lyricist Bob Russell’s last hit was the Hollies’ “He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Brother.)
Cole and Benson are clearly jazz and pop heavies—and brothers in greatness. What could have been a who-cares vanity project is treated as a devoted restoration and celebration, by someone who actually has the chops and experience to pull it off. (I’m talking to you, rockers who tackle the American Songbook, and American Idol contestants who think Harry Connick, Jr. is a fussbudget.) George Benson is one of the greatest guitarists who ever plucked a note, but not too great to honor one of the greatest jazz pianists and singers America has produced, and do it flying straight and right.