Thursday, June 30, 2011

Lounge Lizard Number 1: George Benson

George Benson
Skipping right along.

From the funkiest album of 1973, we fast forward a few years up the line and stop to pick up a guy who refers to himself as the ‘baddest guitar in the world’.  It is 1976.  “Howdy,” the man says as honeyed sounds trip effortlessly out of the radio. “My name is George Benson.”

George Benson is simply one of the greatest guitarists in jazz history, but he is also an amazingly versatile musician, and that frustrates to no end critics who would paint him into a narrow bop box. He can play in just about any style -- from swing to bop to R&B to pop -- with supreme taste, a beautiful rounded tone, terrific speed, a marvelous sense of logic in building solos, and, always, an unquenchable urge to swing. His inspirations may have been Charlie Christian and Wes Montgomery -- and he can do dead-on impressions of both -- but his style is completely his own. Not only can he play lead brilliantly, he is also one of the best rhythm guitarists around, supportive to soloists and a dangerous swinger, particularly in a soul-jazz format. Yet Benson can also sing in a lush soulful tenor with mannerisms similar to those of Stevie Wonder and Donny Hathaway, and it is his voice that has proved to be more marketable to the public than his guitar. Benson is the guitar-playing equivalent of Nat King Cole -- a fantastic pianist whose smooth way with a pop vocal eventually eclipsed his instrumental prowess in the marketplace -- but unlike Cole, Benson has been granted enough time after his fling with the pop charts to reaffirm his jazz guitar credentials, which he still does at his concerts. (all music guide)

Benson’s jazz pedigree touches Wes Montgomery, ‘Brother’ Jack McDuff, the funky jazz organist, and Miles Davis. In the mid 1960s there indeed was no more exciting jazz guitarist than George Benson. His work for the CTI and A&M labels remain examples of some of best jazz of that time.  George actually started out as a singer in and around Pittsburg, PA but had such a way with the guitar his fingers won out over his throat.  But from time to time even in some of his earliest records he can’t help but sing (mostly at a fast gallop) a cut or two.

So when Breezin’ was released in 1976 he caught a few people by surprise. Mostly the great unwashed public who wondered, ‘Where the hell has this guy been all my life?” If you were around in those days, you’ll recall that jazz was a deadman’s game in the 1970s. A thing of professors and nightclub nosepickers. No one under 40 really followed it. 

Suddenly, here’s this guy, George Benson, decked out in a suit and a frilly shirt, unleashing utterly golden, silky and funky riffs upon the soon-to-be discofied world.  And the one vocal cut on the album is a languid and sexy cover of a Leon Russell rock ballad, This Masquerade.

Of course, you know what happened next. The album went multi- platinum, George ditched his golden stringed Ibanez guitar and realized his pop star dream. Good for him. Sad for us because most of his music for the next decade was pulp.

Thankfully he’s grown up and gotten back to being just ‘a badass guitar player’.

Breezin’ is simply timeless.  Relive the 70’s in style!

         Track Listing:
01 Breezin'
02 This Masquerade
03 Six To Four
04 Affirmation
05 So This is Love
06 Lady

Listen here

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