George Benson: The Long Footprints of the Guitar Man
George Benson returns with Guitar Man, a work that features the six-stringer covering a variety of mixtures within various contexts, and featuring some of his best playing and singing since, well…since his last album, 2009’s excellent Songs and Stories. Benson has remained a consistent force on the jazz, pop, rock, and improvisational scene for almost 50 years, spanning several generations, and finding his work championed, but never imitated. The new album cements his place as a musician who stands alongside his generous muse, whether it is a free-flowing solo instrumental, or an inspired cover.
Jambands.com got an opportunity to catch up with Benson during his tour to support the dozen-track album, a work which saw the legend gathering a core band of remarkable musicians comprising a quintet that can get that high, right sound fairly quickly. And the record showcases that tight but loose quality in a unique way. Indeed, Benson does not always work in such a freewheeling fashion, but when one is on a roll, the momentum takes one forward on the wings of yesterday’s confidence. And confidence is a trait that Benson is not lacking in, as he also shows clear signs of humility, a sound grasp of his career, and a legacy that extends back as far as the horizon. Guitar Man is a testament to the power of an artist willing to tackle the familiar and the obscure in equal measures, and come out the other side with his reputation not only intact, but enriched, as well.
RR: I love the title of the new record, Guitar Man because that’s who you are.
GB: (laughs) All my life, brother.
RR: Who had that epiphany?
GB: The producer, John Burk, of the record company is a guy who is a big Benson fan, and he keeps reminding me of how much he loves my guitar, and he always be callin’ me, “You The Man, man; you The Man on the guitar,” and we finally stumbled upon Guitar Man. Wow, I love that title, too, because it’s an honor to be called Guitar Man in this world because there’s so many cats who have made that instrument stick out, and I’m one of them, so it’s really an honor.
RR: I’m floored by how consistently great you still play the guitar on this record with nuance, taste, and flair because I know how hard it can be to keep up the chops over the years, and you are at a peak level on Guitar Man .
GB: (laughs) The big thing about this album that makes it so incredible is that one of the guitars costs less than $500, and the other one is worth over $150,000. (laughs) But every time, I pull that real expensive one out of the closet—I keep it in the closet because I’m afraid something is going to happen to it—something wonderful happens. I pulled it out for me and Earl Klugh many years ago, and then, I pulled it out recently when I did the Al Jarreau tune, “Morning Song.” Both of those songs went over like fat rats. (laughter)
Every time I pull it out, something good happens, so I keep close to it. I pulled it out for this record because there were some solo things I just wanted to come across with an old school vibe. There’s a fresh approach to it when we mixed it on the Johnny Hartman ballad, “My One and Only Love” on the record—it had a guitar solo with that guitar, and the other half is the vocals.
RR: There is a nice mixture of collaboration within the quintet, duos, and full orchestration, and then, there is another side featuring you on sublime solo guitar. What led to the decision to have you play a few tracks with just you on guitar? Was that based on conversations with John Burk?
GB: Well, that’s where John got the idea. He kept hearing me play. We’d be in the studio recording, like when we did the other album, Songs and Stories, he heard me playing these little pieces in between while I was sitting there doing nothing. I’d have the guitar on my lap, and he heard me playing, and he said, “Man, one day we’ve got to put this down.” I said, “What?” He said, “Yeah, man.” He said, “Are you sure anybody wants to hear solo guitar today ?” He said, “For history’s sake.”
It turned out that when we were doing this album, every time we did one of those pieces, and somebody heard it, they’d say, “Man, that sounds really refreshing to hear naked guitar, and to hear that it’s you playing.” Nobody else expected me to play like that. (laughs) So when they heard it, it became me from another point of view, and a good point of view. People like it very much.
RR: Yes, and I think that tone happens right from the beginning with “Tenderly.”
GB: Yeah, I recorded it once before, but it was from a whole different point of view. The other one was a show-off piece. I was tryin’ to show how much chops I had, and I was gonna mess the song up, you know. (laughter) I mean really dig in and get all the juices out—it wasn’t just based on the fact that it was a tender song, a love song. This one is more closer to tender than the other one was. Although, the other one I’m very proud of and I’m proud that people love it, but they didn’t know that I could do that kind of re-harmonization and play with that kind of virtuosity. I had to do it that one time; plus, I was on an album with one of the great pianists in history, McCoy Tyner. I had to do something that said I belong on this record. But this one is more relaxed and more tender. It’s a love song, so I’m very proud of what we did with it.
RR: What follows that track is a very unique take on The Beatles’ “I Wanna Hold Your Hand”—the band performance on that piece is an instant classic.
GB: My musical director, David Garfield wanted me to do that piece because we used to rehearse it almost every day at soundcheck. We’d just mess with it, and they said, “Oh, man, I really like that.” We played it a couple of times live, and it went over very well,
but we never go to the studio with it. What Garfield did was he went and taped one of my versions of it live, and then he went into the studio and re-produced it and put an orchestra in the back. Garfield’s the guy who did the orchestra on the synthesizers, just to see what the possibilities were. When John heard that—finally, two, three years later—and he said, “Man, what are you gonna do with that?” And I said, “Well, I don’t know. We never really got around to it. Let’s put it up and see what happens.” So we put it up, I did one or two takes, and it came out like that. They went back and did real instruments with flutes [Dan Higgins] and violins [Charles Bisharat]—things to give it a real sound, a real orchestrated sound. A South American arranger, Oscar Castro-Neves gave it that romantic sound that it has, a lush sound, and I like that because I think Latinos really have a knack for making things really sound romantic. It came out really nice, but Garfield is the cat who gets all the credit for that by staying on me by saying, “Hey, George, you’ve got to put this down, man. You can’t just leave this in this state. Finish it.” And I did, and I only did a couple of takes on it with my classical guitar, my little 440 dollar and change one, but it looks like 500 dollars.” (laughter)
RR: Your arrangement on the song is a good example of how the listener thinks they may know where you are going on guitar, but you always play something unpredictable, make it your own, and turn in a unique performance.
GB: That’s really a nice song, man. Paul McCartney is one of my very good friends in the music world, and one of the best composers of all time. He’s a great musician, too. And his singing is spectacular. I always admired his singing. We’re very good friends, and now, there’s another song of his that I’ve added to my repertoire. I’ve got a lot of his (laughs), but we remain friends, man. I hope he likes it as well as people seem to like it.
RR: Your version of Stevie Wonder’s “My Cherie Amour” is also quite strong.
GB: You know what he did—we did a tribute for him about four or five years ago. They gave me that song to sing at the tribute; they assigned it to me. When I started singing it on stage, Stevie was in the audience and he stood up and he started doing his rockin’ back and forth. After it was over, he came backstage and said, “George, you’ve got to record that, man. You have to record that song.” So, I finally got around to doing it. I wanted to keep it in his bag because you can’t really improve on Stevie Wonder. His melodies are some of the finest we’ve ever heard, but I said I would put in the ensemble part in the center where the instrumental part is. I did an instrumental part, which I made up in my mind, on the spot, and it came out so nice. I hope Stevie likes what we did here, but people love it. They are calling me from all over the world—Australia, New Zealand, from Europe, and other places—telling me how much they liked that particular song.