Living in High Definition with George Benson
George Benson’s waltz through over four decades of jazz, pop and R&B dominance is not just staggering, but a testament to a musician’s ability to retain and refine his sound. The singer/guitarist began his career as a successor to the work created by the great jazz guitar pioneer Wes Montgomery, but Benson created his own signature by combining a strong ear for the pop lick coupled with a sophisticated view of his voice and instrument.
Early peaks included 1968’s Shape of Things to Come and 1969’s _The Other Side of Abbey Road_—the former, a colossal step onto a scene that was overcrowded at the time, but would soon clear a wide and long path just for him, and the latter, a clever jazz interpretation of the Beatle’s classic album. By the early 70s, especially on the incredible collaboration on Beyond the Blue Horizon between the guitarist and a rhythm section consisting of Jack DeJohnette on drums and Ron Carter on bass, Benson was beginning to hit his stride before a key transitional period would arc the musician into superstardom.
As his career began to take off in the mid-70s, Benson also became a formidable singer, a breathtaking scat man, as well as a charismatic frontman on guitar, either spinning off beautifully languid and loose solos, or holding down a mean rhythm track as a bedrock. The next thirty years would see the man record numerous classic songs like “This Masquerade,” “On Broadway,” “Turn Your Love Around,” “Breezin’,” and “Give Me the Night,” as well as landmark albums which combined pop and R&B motifs into an inimitable George Benson trademark sound on Breezin’, Weekend in L.A., Give Me the Night, and Tenderly. His current work consolidates those strengths in an impressive way.
Jambands.com sits down with George Benson for a discussion of his new album Songs and Stories, which features numerous collaborations between the singer/guitarist and some of his favorite artists and composers over the years. Included on these twelve compositions are pieces specifically written for the album, and several choice covers selected by Benson and produced by Concord Record’s creative muse John Burk and legendary jazz figure, Marcus Miller in a wonderful reunion of seasoned talent.
Indeed, on the album, Rod Temperton wrote “Family Reunion,” and he was not only a key composer for Benson on “Give Me the Night,” but also worked with the late Michael Jackson on most of the pop icon’s Thriller tracks. Elsewhere, Benson duets with a young guitar prodigy Norman Brown who not only lives up to the challenge, but expertly shares the song with his vaunted predecessor. Not that anyone seems to be able to duplicate Benson or his influences. As he details on his discussion about working with the late Donny Hathaway, a talented yet troubled musician who passed away in 1979, and whose song “Someday We’ll All Be Free,” co-written with Ed Howard, is a subtle masterpiece on Songs and Stories, “just watching and listening to him sing was like going to school for vocalism—you know, a special school” Indeed, a brief class is in session, and Benson is still at the front of the class, clearly not yet ready to relinquish his post. Nor should he.
RR: Let’s talk about your new record Songs and Stories. I’ve been living with it for about two weeks now but you’ve certainly been living with it for a bit longer.
GB: Yeah, tweakin’ and all of that craziness and trying to get it right for release because we knew we had something nice, something special that would get a good response—at least we felt that way. There are a good variety of things, the composers we were looking for—among the best in the world—and great engineers and great musicians on the roster. My friends, taboot; buddies that have already given me smash records. It’s really a privilege to be on this particular recording. I think you can feel the camaraderie there.
RR: What’s amazing is how many different pieces are presented on the record, and yet your guitar and voice are the common element. You took each one of these songs, written by other composers, and applied your own signature sound on them. I wondered what you thought of that process?
GB: Yeah. Yeah. I think starting with the one song that we had done a few years ago down in Brazil, and I played it for the producer and said that it was a project that I had started in Brazil. He heard it and he said, “Man, we need to put this on this record.” I said, “You mean re-do it?” And he said, “No, let’s use what we’ve got.” So we put on Marcus Miller, and it was the only element with put on the James Taylor song [“Don’t Let Me Be Lonely Tonight”] and it worked out fantastic. That’s all it needed so less was more, and it worked out. It fit into the album so nicely and it’s a great way to start the album off—a classic song done slightly different, but showing all of the respect that was due to the original version.
RR: I like that word “respect” as you’re using your own trademark and style, but there is respect paid to the original recordings on these dozen tracks.
GB: Yeah, I think it’s important to have your own vibe on it, but I also like to pay homage to the original because that’s what made it so attractive to the world. The original version of that is a classic, and we certainly don’t want to take away from that. We want to show a different side of it, a different possibility. That, with my own guitar solo, gave it its own space there.