“Jazz guitar” has always been a marginal thing — not at all like the status afforded the saxophone or trumpet or drum kit. Guitarists playing in jazz big bands were hopelessly outgunned, volume-wise, and had to figure out how to amplify their instrument. Boy did they. But before they knew it, their newly juiced axe had helped give rise to rock ‘n’ roll. And so “jazz guitar” became anomaly again: an instrument vaguely out of place amidst the swing.
Not that there haven’t been brilliant jazz guitarists. Charlie Christian, Django Reinhardt, Wes Montgomery, Kenny Burrell. But by the time George Benson came along in the mid-1960s, maybe a jazz guitarist had a special burden to deal with: the jazz implications of the surge in guitar-based pop music. And listening to The Essential George Benson, Sony/Legacy’s concise and tasty pan-label retrospective of Mr. Benson’s career, it comes beclear that this burden was George Benson’s opportunity, and also his cross to bear. It made him famous, and it made him a disappointment. And it made him an utterly interesting musician to look back on.
Unlike today’s young jazz guitarists, who are trained to within an inch of their lives at the best music schools, Mr. Benson was always a natural. His style — a bluesy amalgam of Wes and Kenny, but with more melodic strength than either — is consistent through a quarter century of recordings. He doesn’t much read music, but he manages to feel his way into nearly every setting presented to him. His singing — which would ultimately bring him more fame and cash than his playing — mirrored his playing: sweet and soulful, natural, maybe more pop than jazz.
Mr. Benson, at only 20 years old out of Pittsburgh, got his start playing in a classic organ group with Brother Jack McDuff — organ, tenor, guitar, and drums. We catch him here playing firey, repetitive stuff on “Rock Candy” from 1963, and then “Shadow Dancers”, an original of sorts from a year later — his first date as a leader, but still on Prestige playing with McDuff’s group. On both tracks, Benson is fully formed as a jazz player — not so much fast as fluid, while playing almost entirely in a blues style, but with an innate consciousness of the sweet spots in the chords that any jazz melodist needs. He matches Red Holloway’s tenor in drive and, frankly, outplays Mr. McDuff.
The next four tracks are from Benson’s tenure on Columbia, to which he was steered after John Hammond heard him in a club and had him sign a contract on a napkin. Hammond, as always, knew what he was doing, and set the guitarist in another — but more sympathetic — organ group. “Clockwise” is a devilish cooker full of stops and turns for Lonnie Smith’s organ and Ronnie Cuber on baritone. “Willow Weep for Me” was the group’s set piece, a slow burn ballad that let Benson play blues licks that unfold like quicksilver. “The Borgia Stick” is a ditty that sets up a perfectly balanced guitar solo that shifts between stop-time and mid-tempo swing. Hammond also had the savvy to let Benson sing. Here, it’s “A Foggy Day”, with the band swinging it hard. Benson’s voice — which will come to dominate the second disc of this set — is not the typical pleasant but modest instrumentalist’s set of pipes. He sings like a pro, but almost like an old-time showman — a mix of Ray Charles and Bobby Darin, replete with bright vibrato and soulful shakes. I’m not sure I like it all that much, but there’s no doubt: the cat can sing.
The organ sound continues on the guitarist’s first few recordings for Creed Taylor (on his “CTI” label), who would eventually do to Mr. Benson what he had done to Wes Montgomery a decade earlier. The arrangement of Miles’s “So What” for organ, guitar, Ron Carter’s bass and Jack DeJohnette on drums is simply wonderful: a rock groove under the famous melody, then half-time swing blossoming into straight four-four on the solos. “Ode to a Kudu” (also from the disc Beyond the Blue Horizon) is la ovely tone poem by the same quartet. And the addition of “Sugar” from a sparking Stanley Turrentine jam-session date is a fine touch, with Mr. Benson delivering another memorable solo on a minor blues structure.
His solo is much less memorable on “Paraphernalia”, the Wayne Shorter tune that Benson recorded with a Miles Davis quintet in 1988. He’s obviously uncomfortable with the somewhat open-ended structure of the tune, and his comping on the head sounds out of sync with Herbie Hancock’s figure. His solo is typically strong on melody (not despite of, but because of the lack of chord changes to play over), but there’s little surprise that Benson did not play with the group again.
In its second half, The Essential moves into Mr. Benson’s commercial phase. Less proto-smoove jazz than a case of over-production and over-calculation, these CTI sides are intriguing even if they’re not fully successful. “California Dreamin'” is drenched in a Don Sebesky arrangement, including a Hubert Laws flute feature, and comes off less as a piece of pop exploitation than as a kind of chamber jazz. “White Rabbit”, the Jefferson Airplane tune, is the same odd combination, with Benson sounding tentative and muted as he plucks out the melody and stabs at his solo. A million times better are “Body Talk” and a skittering version of “Take Five”, where the solos are serpentine and flowing. “Body Talk” is little more than a funk ostinato with a short bridge and set of tasty horn parts, but Benson makes the most of it, carving out melodies over one chord like a bluesy Mozart. The 5/4 groove of the Paul Desmond tune doesn’t make Benson flinch at all, and both songs are made richer by superb contrast solos on Fender Rhodes electric piano by Harold Mabern and Kenny Barron, respectively. These were the kind of tracks that made CTI an oasis for young jazz fans at a time (the early 1970s) when mainstream jazz was not being recorded much.
Creed Taylor didn’t neglect Mr. Benson’s voice either, featuring it on a concert recording of “Summertime”. Here, Benson sounds relaxed and soulful (if drenched in over-dramatic strings), and we hear for the first time his trademark scat-guitar improvising style. He wordlessly sings along with his playing and infuses the ballad with some desperately needed juice. The trick was so good that it carried over to Mr. Benson’s first record with Warner Brothers, the crossover hit Breezin’. Here we get the title track, an easy listening Bobby Womack instrumental that Mr. Benson could play in his sleep, and the smash “This Masquerade”, where all the ingredients truly came together for the guitarist-aspiring-pop-star. For the first time, Mr. Benson’s vocal is perfectly balanced (soulful, jazzy, high but masculine) and the accompaniment — acoustic piano, electric bass, tasteful strings, and of course guitar — is pop without schmaltz. Mr. Benson’s guitar solo is typically direct, and the piano solo by Jorge Dalto competes for your memory as well. With some scat/guitar on the out-chorus, it is essentially a perfect record (if not a perfect jazz record).
Mr. Benson and Warners followed this with a live version of the Lieber/Stoller standard “On Broadway” — another radio hit. Mr. Benson was by now a vocal star, and he sings the tune with confidence and rip. The line “But they’re damn wrong, I know they are / ‘Cause I can play this here guitar!” receives understandable cheers from the crowd at LA’s Roxy, and the star proceeds to tear off a scat/guitar solo of such basic appeal and architecture that it would seem the jazz guitar/rock ‘n’ roll dilemma has indeed been solved. Here at last was a respected and capable jazz guitarist who could also use this “instrument of the people” to communicate in direct pop styles.
But that, alas, was to be it for the artistic successes for George Benson. He would have more hits (his biggest, “Give Me the Night”, a Quincy Jones joint from 1980 is here), and he would play more jazz, but nothing from the last thirty years has come close to his “Willow Weep” or his “So What” or “This Masquerade”. The Essential makes the case for a 1978 track from a Tony Williams album, “Hip Skip”, that was written by Mr. Benson and features punching horns and swirling synthesizers, but it is a time-locked novelty at best. An appealing pick-up date, the title track from the 1980 Dexter Gordon album, Gotham City, places Mr. Benson back in a straight-ahead jazz context, but there’s little to be said about it. Still fluid and melodic as a jazz guitarist ,but also inessential to the track and outplayed by pianist Cedar Walton, George Benson in 1980 sounds no better than the kid who emerged in 1962.
Still under 40, his Essential collection is over, and you do understand his career much better. George Benson is a sweet blues player with jazz feeling, and he was able to sharpen the Wes Montgomery heritage into the rock age with a stinging tone and genuine gift for melody. But, in the end, his pop instincts were somewhat old-fashioned and his jazz talent was not for innovation or surprise. You savor his great moments and that invincible scat/guitar work, but — aside from the early organ group work — it’s mostly nostalgia.