George Benson: Guitar Man

[17 November 2011]

By Will Layman

George Benson is the Eddie Murphy of jazz.

Like Murphy, Benson was tops in his field ... a while back. Murphy was one of the most hilarious talents of his time. In clubs, on Saturday Night Live, and then in a series of movies that allowed Murphy to do his thing, Eddie Murphy was the coolest, funniest cat in entertainment.

At his best, Benson is one of the greatest jazz guitarists, a guy of brilliant technique and style, a master. And there was a time when Benson dazzled regularly, applying his fantastic playing to music that was worthy of his talent.

Just as Murphy had an imposing predecessor in Richard Pryor, George Benson modeled himself after Wes Montgomery. But both of the younger guys also had their own thing, a smoother way with an audience that propelled to huge stardom. Murphy had Beverly Hill Cops, and Benson had Breezin’ and “On Broadway”.

But for both Benson and Murphy, it all went sour.

Murphy’s story might be summed up thusly: The Klumps. His decline from edgy to horrific might be easier to take if he didn’t still occasionally do great work. As a result, his recent mediocrity feels more like betrayal than failure.

George Benson’s trajectory feels the same way to jazz fans. Benson’s playing with grooving organ groups in the 1960s was superb (The New Boss Guitar, for example with Jack McDuff), and his appearance as a guest of Miles Davis on Miles in the Sky was pure intrigue. His appearances on CTI records in the 1970s may have been tainted some by the era, but few can dispute that his playing was wickedly fine on Beyond the Blue Horizon or even the more soul-oriented Good King Bad. And most jazz fans loved his Warner Brothers debut Breezin’, which made him a vocal star because of his version of “This Masquerade”.

But somewhere in all that good music, the commercial temptation to sing more and play less—and the rise of the smooth jazz industry, too—turned Bad Benson into a jazz guitarist who had lost his way. Much like Nat Cole from an earlier generation, Benson became a singer for the market, despite his instrumental genius. And his singing was pop-soul singing, of course—there’d be little point in singing for the market as a jazz singer. Jazz fans could only react cynically to the man. Did he record credible jazz records in the last 35 years? Sure. But he’d left jazz behind as certainly as Eddie Murphy’s wit had stopped mattering.

So, the cynical jazz critic will have to approach Benson’s new disc on Concord Jazz (emphasis added) with caution. It’s called Guitar Man? Okay, well, let’s see.

And the recording starts, whoa!, with a tour de force on acoustic guitar: a solo rendering of the standard “Tenderly”. Astonishing, precise, neither too ornate nor too plain, tasteful, invincible. George Benson, Guitarman? Yes. He’s back, and in stellar form.

But then you get to the second track, which is precisely the kind of thing you were fearing—a de-toothing of the Beatles’ “I Want to Hold Your Hand” that is so schlocky that rock fans cannot even recognize the melody even though it is played accurately. A string section, some soothing woodwinds, soft-focus production, simplistic back-beat drumming that lacks the force of rock, the swing of jazz or the deep pocket of soul. Muzak, ack. There’s a dramatic key change toward the end that gilds the lily. Through it all, Benson plays amazing licks, most certainly, but it doesn’t matter. It’s a disaster.

And so Guitar Man is a near-perfect summation of Benson’s career. Wonders alternate with gunky stuff. Your head shakes. Who is George Benson? He does a little bit of everything, but you may only want to hear some of it.

The jazz gems here include all the solo guitar work, which spans a huge range and utterly cries out for a full-disc treatment, uncluttered by smoothosity.  “Danny Boy” is sparkling on acoustic guitar—beginning with a cool simulation of the sound of bagpipes, if you can believe it, that unfolds into a luxurious jazz guitar treatment. “Naima” is the Coltrane ballad, of course, which begins solo and then plays out (albeit much too briefly) over fine trio work by Joe Sample, bassist Ben Williams, and Harvey Mason on drums. “My One and Only Love” also starts solo, then it adds the trio and vocals, much like the classic Johnny Hartman/Coltrane version. Benson also crushes a super-short swing arrangement of “Paper Moon” with his trio, where the interplay between guitar and piano is delicious.

The problem with the other half of Guitar Man is not that it is not jazz—It is oddly diluted pop. For example, what is George Benson doing playing an impotent instrumental version of the Norah Jones hit “Don’t Know Why”? It’s an act of severe mellow—kind of pretty, but nothing more. The same thing goes for Thriller’s “Lady in My Life”. Without a vocal, this song is just a weird echo of Michael, and though Benson’s guitar playing is gold, you just know he can do this kind of thing in his sleep. Maybe worse is Benson’s decision to cover “My Cherie Amour”. Benson’s singing is relatively similar to that of Stevie Wonder, so this version is a strange fake-out: not Stevie but not quite sufficiently non-Stevie.

Some will wonder what “Tequila”, the 1958 Latin-rock tune is doing here, but it’s surely a tribute to Wes Montgomery, who used it as the title track of a 1966 album on Verve. But the result is the same: a faded photocopy of something that felt snappy and new ... almost a half-century ago.

The promotional copy for Guitar Man, of course, contains plenty of talk about “bringing his guitar to the forefront” and “something very close to the live experience,” but the truth is that this recording feels like a self-conscious spanning of Benson’s career (You know how Benson became known for singing along wordlessly to his guitar lines? He does that on “Fingerlero” here). Highs and lows, substance and schlock.

And because it spans from great to gummy, from timeless to truly temporary, Guitar Man is tough for a jazz fan—or a George Benson fan—to love.

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