Tuesday, May 05, 2009

Rediscovery: George Benson "Breezin'"

I have spent years resisting this album; from absolute disregard, at first, to unfettered stupefaction later at its initial and seemingly unaccountable continued popularity. I have bought - and gotten rid of - several copies of Breezin' (Warner Bros., 1976), always unable to hear what the big deal was.

Truth be told, I did the exact same thing with the Miles Davis "classic" Bitches Brew too. No matter how many times I bought it, in whatever format, it always sounded stupid to me. And I was definitely the sort who loved pre-Bitches Miles as much as post-Bitches Miles.

I loved pre-Breezin' Benson and only sort of liked some of the post-Breezin' Benson I had heard. I guess I figured that Breezin' was the beginning of the end of Benson's artistic journey and the catalyst for some of his lesser efforts that followed.

Well, like, Miles - who vowed with Bitches Brew to break on through to the other side - I was also wrong about Breezin' too, another effort - whether intended or not - that really crossed, rather successfully, over to the other side. Indeed, it was the first "million seller" jazz had ever experienced.

Breezin', Benson's 1976 album and his first one away from CTI Records, is a magnificent piece of work, however you choose to view it - jazz, pop, whatever. It took five separate purchases of Bitches Brew for me to finally get that. And now that we're nearing three and a half decades since the release of Breezin', I am happy to say that I finally "get" this one too. It is truly monumental.

The album's single, "This Masquerade," was all over the radio in the summer of 1976 and I can remember it like it was yesterday. For me, I was 13 and it brings back (weird) memories of swim-team meets, practices and long days at the swimming pool - back in the day when I could successfully sport a Speedo.

I also remember that, as a Pittsburgher, we all took great pride in George Benson, hometown-boy-made-good. Every radio station we listened to back then played Benson relentlessly. So I didn't need to buy the record and didn't, for the first time, until years after.

A couple of years later I discovered the Benson I would fall in love with on CTI (specifically Good King Bad) and, later, I even met childhood friends (that's you, Joyce, if you're reading) and associates of Benson.

I still never sat through Breezin' until I discovered guitarist Gabor Szabo and found that the title track to Benson's album emanated from the Hungarian guitarist's 1971 album, High Contrast (Blue Thumb), which, like Breezin', was also produced by Tommy LiPuma.

When Benson hit with the song, Szabo put it back into his repertoire - even claiming the song as his own on a few occasions - despite its Bobby Womack authorship. Szabo and Benson would go onto perform the song together live in New York City in 1977, though recordings of this event don't seem to exist.

Although everyone thinks Breezin' is a "pop" album, the only vocal Benson takes here is on the lovely cover of Leon Russell's "This Masquerade," with his lovely scat solo. While this certainly presages "smooth jazz," it is sexy, smoldering and alluring all at once. Smooth jazz never sounded this good.

The remainder of the album is what holds a jazz lover's attention, from Phil Upchurch's interesting "Six To Four" and Ronnie Foster's pretty "Lady" to Benson's own semi-funky-cum-melodic "So This Is Love?" (a great piece of late 70s West Coast jazzanalia).

But one of the album's pure joys is surely "Affirmation," a beautiful song by Jose Feliciano, which sets Benson alight at some of his best, most provocative guitar playing on record (guitarist Danny Godinez gives it props in his sets as part of Michael Shrieve's Spellbinder - check out "Flamingo" from Live at Tost for "affirmation").

As in so much of his best work, Claus Ogerman's arrangements here are spare and lovely: simplicity and perfection all at once. Ogerman also scored Benson's similar, but not as inspired follow-up, In Flight. But, here, the combination is positively inspired.

Benson is backed here to perfection by Phil Upchurch on rhythm guitar, Ronnie Foster on electric piano, Jorge Dalto on keyboards, Stanley Banks on bass, Harvey Mason on drums and Ralph MacDonald on percussion.

Rhino's 25th Anniversary version of Breezin', issued in 2001, also includes the previously unissued vocal version of Lalo Schifrin's "Down Here On The Ground" (from Cool Hand Luke), which Benson popularized several years later on his huge Weekend In L.A.. Also included is the tremendous "Shark Bite," which mysteriously stayed unreleased until it showed up as the B-side to Benson's great "20/20" 45 - in 1984 (see below).

Perhaps the pleasure here is that you just don't hear George Benson sound this good anymore. Yes, it's smooth. Yes, it's slick. But it's inspired. And it's far more intriguing than the decades of smooth, slick garbage that this powerful and potent release set upon us all. Kudos to George Benson for a monumental piece of jazz enjoyment - and something I am happy to keep now and listen to over and over again.

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