Monday, June 01, 2009

Reconsidering George Benson

After spending years and years and years dismissing - or laughing off - any of the post-CTI work George Benson (b. 1943, Pittsburgh) has issued, I find it's time for a well-deserved reassessment of the guitarist and pop vocalist's 1976-93 output on the Warner Bros. label and, probably, some sort of an apology for my unexplainable snobbishness toward this stuff.

My first thought in this direction happened nearly a decade ago with the fantastic Absolute Benson (GRP, 2000), something I picked up out of curiosity and have never tired of enjoying since. I enjoy it so much that it feels timeless. It feels like it only came out only last year. So it surprises me that so much time has gone by since then.

I remember thinking at the time that this was the first of Benson's discs that got back into that groove I perceived he'd perfected on so many of his great CTI records like Beyond The Blue Horizon (1971), Body Talk (1973), Bad Benson (1974), Benson & Farrell (1976) and, most especially, Good King Bad (1975) and its equally wonderful album of outtakes, Pacific Fire (issued in 1983).

But I'd have no way of knowing this, particularly since I only knew the Warner Bros. period of Benson's work by his well-known radio hits ("This Masquerade," "The Greatest Love Of All," "Love Ballad," "Give Me The Night," "Turn Your Love Around" and "Lady Love Me"). I just assumed the rest of these albums all sounded like this, which, to a large extent they do. But since these songs - all pretty good, for what they are - were not what I wanted to hear Benson doing, I steered clear of George Benson albums altogether.

Now, after several postings reconsidering the remarkable artistry of George Benson during this period, a reader has reminded me that Benson's Warner Bros. catalog contains far more worth reconsidering too. How right he is and how much I've missed.

I owe this particular posting to his encouragement and, moreover, providing me with many of the "drive-by" albums that I've wrongly ignored for all these years.

Breezin' (1976): George Benson's breakout album is probably the most satisfying "jazz" album the guitarist and vocalist made during his nearly two decades at Warner Bros. Five of the album's six titles are instrumentals and feature a nice backing group comprised of Phil Upchurch, Ronnie Foster, Jorge Dalto, Stanley Banks, Harvey Mason and Ralph MacDonald, highlighted by arranger Claus Ogerman's effervescent strings. From the start, almost nothing is wrong with this album. Highlights include Bobby Womack's "Breezin'" (originally recorded by guitarist Gabor Szabo in 1971), Jose Feliciano's delicious "Affirmation" (a signature Benson piece) and Benson's own "So This Is Love?" (especially the solo). The remaining three tracks are all highly worthwhile as well, particularly if you want to bask in Benson's beautiful guitar playing. Benson hit with "This Masquerade" and "Breezin'" from this record. The 25th anniversary CD issued in 2001 also features the remarkable "Shark Bite," which first saw the light of day as the b-side to Benson's 1984 45 "20/20." Read more here.

In Flight (1977): After Breezin' hit the big time in 1976, producer Tommy LiPuma reconvened the prior album's cast for something of a sequel (for the record, Benson & Farrell was recorded between Breezin' and In Flight to help Benson fulfill contractual obligations to CTI). In Flight pairs rather nicely with Breezin', but the vocal numbers increase substantially and disco rhythms tend to infiltrate a bit more. Still, even on the album's four vocal tracks, Benson's guitar gets prominence throughout. This would change dramatically in only a few short years, making this album something worth savoring. There are only two complete instrumentals here, and they are among the album's very best tracks: Ronnie Foster's "The Wind And I (aka Hot Stuff)" and Donny Hathaway's "Valdez In The Country" (which, in addition to "Breezin'" from the previous album, was selected by arranger Claus Ogerman to feature on his magnum opus, The Man Behind The Music). Benson had a moderate hit here with "Everything Must Change." But the album's single best moment is probably the captivating - and surprising - cover of War's "The World Is A Ghetto," which starts off like an instrumental and proceeds to find Benson lending his warm and sincere vocals (and another great scat solo) to the piece - scoring a home run in the process and, something that stands strong on its own or along side Benson's cover of Donny Hathaway's "The Ghetto" (from Absolute Benson). Postscript: There is a promotional 12-inch of the full 9-minute, 41-second version of "The World Is A Ghetto" available on Warner Bros. PRO-661, that allows the spaces on the vinyl to open up to hear this song in all its beautiful glory.

Weekend In L.A. (1978): During the summer of 1978, this album was a huge hit, selling millions of copies, spurred on by the surprising success of Benson's lively remake of The Drifters' 1963 hit "On Broadway" (oddly, this was the year that also found Jackson Brown hitting with Maurice Williams' 1960 "Stay," Linda Ronstadt hitting with The Miracles' 1965 "Ooh Baby Baby" and James Taylor hitting with Jimmy Jones' 1960 hit "Handy Man"). Benson takes charge of the song, owning its "I won't quit till I'm a star" ethos and offering a tremendously invigorating scat solo in addition, something which not too many pop-rock audiences were accustomed to hearing at the time. It's hard to believe that the millions who flocked to hear "On Broadway" and the like on this album were satisfied with the excellent mostly jazz-flavored program Benson and company present here. Benson's group features the same guys who brought Breezin' and In Flight to life - less arranger Claus Ogerman's backgrounds. One of the things that makes this one of the better live albums of the era (remember, Frampton Comes Alive changed everyone's expectations for live albums back in the day) is that there is a terrific combination of totally new material with pleasingly little, if not completely unknown, retreads of old material to be heard here. Uniformly great playing from all concerned and highlights abound: Benson's own "Weekend In L.A.," Benson's "California P.M.," Neil Larson's "Windsong," Benson's gorgeous "Ode to a Kudu" (first heard on the 1971 album Beyond The Blue Horizon) and Ronnie Foster's "We As Love." Note the higher quotient of Benson originals featured here. All in all, quite beautiful stuff.

Livin' Inside Your Love (1979): This double-album seemed like a bit of hubris even back then. But Benson had the goods - and he was selling millions of records to boot. Now, some three decades later, it's nice to have this wealth of music available. Even though Benson could pretty much do whatever he wanted at the time, this whole album seems like a bit too much. If I were to guess, though, it's probably the closest to Benson's heart. This is exactly the kind of music Benson wanted to be making: a 50/50 split between silky soul numbers and light jazz takes that fans of either style would have no problem accepting if they crossed the line into Benson's domain. This is one of the last albums to feature most of Benson's successful working group, present on the previous three Warners albums. Added here is a number of studio pros (Steve Gadd, Will Lee, Greg Phillinganes and Robert Popwell, Jr.) and former Benson protégé Earl Klugh (on the title track only) to season the action, which really is not all that bad. Slick, yes, but this one seems driven by artistic concerns first and commercial concerns second. Claus Ogerman, in the last of his three Benson collaborations, helms the orchestra for all but three of the album's tracks ("Prelude to Fall," "Livin' Inside Your Love" and the album's moderately successful hit single, "Love Ballad"). These three tracks are helmed by vibist Mike Maineri - who, given his work elsewhere around this time, might have done magical things with Benson if the two had more of an opportunity to work together. There is something of a transition in this album. Benson sort of perfected a smooth approach here that was toughened up or overproduced by later producers. This is pretty much the end of Benson's jazz career too. From here on in, it was all about hit attempts. The guitar became an occasional solo thing and, in many cases, disappeared from most of the music altogether. All of this makes Livin' Inside Your Love something to appreciate and enjoy. Highlights: Ronnie Foster's "Nassau Day" (also a DJ fave) and "Prelude to Fall" as well as George Benson's seemingly unpromising "You're Never Too Far From Me" and "Before You Go."

Give Me The Night (1980): Pairing Quincy Jones with George Benson was an inspired idea that yielded this hit album, which is really quite good, the first on Jones' own Qwest label. By this time, Jones had become well known as the magician behind Michael Jackson's mega-hit album Off The Wall (Epic, 1979), which would only be eclipsed by the pair's later Thriller (Epic, 1982). Jones, like Benson, had a background in jazz and the composer, arranger, film scoring-producer-turned guru, like the guitarist turned vocal hit-maker, had a backlog of hits of his own and others (Aretha Franklin, The Brothers Johnson and Rufus) to his credit. Here, Jones assembles a top-shelf coterie of musicians (Lee Ritenour, Herbie Hancock, Louis Johnson, the Seawind horns, Patti Austin), writers (Rod Temperton, Ivans Lins) and arrangers for a first-class effort that sounded like nothing else at the time other than other Quincy Jones productions. Slick, but artful, Give Me The Night is pure pop pleasure. The artistry is evident even on the album's finely crafted title-track hit, but most appreciable in the album's only two instrumentals, Rod Temperton's well-done "Off Broadway" (a jokey reference, no doubt, to Benson's 1978 hit) and "Dinorah, Dinorah," one of two Ivan Lins tunes here. Even the vocal tunes here maintain an artistic integrity that allows each of the participants to contribute creatively, rather than by rote. Vocalist Patti Austin is evident throughout, particularly on the well-handled cover of "Moody's Mood," and turns out to be perfectly partnered with Benson as a vocalist - in the first of many such pairings. While a slew of singles were issued from this album following the hit title cut ("Love X Love," "Midnight Love Affair" and "What's On Your Mind"), the highlights remain the instrumentals: "Off Broadway" (oddly enough, not on the Best of George Benson: The Instrumentals, rendering that 1997 CD nearly useless) and "Dinorah, Dinorah." It's surprising - and rather a shame - that Quincy Jones and George Benson didn't reunite for any additional or substantial recordings other than Benson's guest appearance on Jones' own Back on the Block (Qwest, 1989).

In Your Eyes (1983): This Arif Mardin production puts pop out in front - way in front - of any of George Benson's talents or capabilities and the result is, along with 1986's dismal While The City Sleeps, probably one of the most dated recordings Benson ever made. Still, Benson scored a hit with David Paich and James Newton Howard's decent, but very 80s sounding "Lady Love Me (One More Time)." For the record, Toto's lead man, David Paich, is working with Benson on an upcoming disc, and Paich's famed father, Marty Paich, did the almost negligible strings heard on this track. Also, it should be obvious that Howard, who I only knew at the time from his work in Elton John's mid-70s band, has gone on to become a hugely successful film composer in Hollywood. Of the vocal pieces here, the average "Love Will Come Again" is as good at it gets and features Benson playing some very welcome guitar in a way that works very well in a pop structure (Chaka Khan is also featured here on background vocals). The instrumentals here are a bit on the bloodless side, but are still worth hearing: (drummer) Omar Hakim's "Being With You" (with nice strings arranged by Mardin - and a lovely solo by Benson) and Adam Falcon's "In Search of A Dream." All in all, it's ok, but nothing worth going out of anybody's way for.

20/20 (1985): An unbelievably bright and lively pop confection, produced for the most part by Russ Titleman (b. 1944). Titleman was responsible for many Warner Bros. pop acts including Little Feat, Ry Cooder, Rickie Lee Jones, James Taylor, Randy Newman and Paul Simon and had something of a reputation for getting hits out of all these guys, even the hits-shy of the bunch. So you know what everyone was going for here. One might assume that Benson was demoted to Titleman here as the producer has hardly shown the talent for artistry that Benson's previous producers brought to the guitarist-slash-vocal hitman. But he (or somebody) assembled a pretty decent set of tunes here. The program screams radio-friendly mid-1980s fare (yuck), yet the tunes themselves are pretty much above-average and Benson delivers them all like he means them. First and foremost is Randy Goodrum and Steve Kipner's delightful title track, this album's best-known hit. It actually boasts some great synth programming (by Goodrum), a highly catchy refrain and a far-too brief scat solo Benson takes at the end of the song in unison with Patti Austin. There were quite a few singles issued here, too: the remarkable "20/20," of course, as well as "I Just Wanna Hang Around You," "No One Emotion," "New Day" and the jazzy and slightly out-of-place "Beyond The Sea (La Mer)" (featuring the Count Basie Orchestra, led by Frank Foster). "The Greatest Love Of All" co-writer Michael Masser contributes equally memorable tracks here, too: "Nothing's Gonna Change My Love For You" and "You Are The Light Of My Life" (a duet with Roberta Flack). Each one of these is surprisingly memorable and, if I were to guess, strives to capture what Benson caught with Quincy Jones on 1980's Give Me The Night. Obviously, Benson's hit-making power was now far behind Quincy Jones' post-Thriller star-making (or money-making) power and everyone here seems like they might be in some sort of copy-cat or catch-up mode. Still, the odds add up to much more than even I would have expected. Highlights: The wonderful "20/20" and Neil Larsen's average-at-best "Stand Up" (the only instrumental here) - and, for those that are interested, the pop songs mentioned above. Postscript: "20/20" was also issued in a 6-minute, 32-second extended dance 12-inch remix mixed by John "Jellybean" Benitez on Warner Bros. PRO-A-2251, which I REALLY hope to hear someday (the song was also, confusingly, issued in its 4-minute, 5-second album version on the Warner Bros. 12-inch PRO-A-2231). Check out the "20/20" video here.

Collaboration (1987): Benson reteamed with guitarist Earl Klugh after 1971's White Rabbit, 1973's Body Talk and 1979's Livin' Inside Your Love and producer Tommy LiPuma (Benson's first four Warner Bros. albums made between 1976 and 1979, including Livin' Inside Your Love, their last work together) for this 1987 collaboration, Benson's first all-out jazz record in more than a decade. The two guitarists front a small group featuring Greg Phillinganes on keyboards, Paul Jackson on rhythm guitar, Marcus Miller on bass, Harvey Mason on drums and Paulhino Da Costa on percussion. In the years since Benson had recorded in this mode, fusion had pretty much become extinct, replaced with what was rapidly becoming known as smooth jazz. Collaboration is prototypical smooth jazz, boasting a program that is driven by what would have been recognized at the time as Klugh's pleasant groove. It makes for easy listening; smart, well-played and nothing that would offend anyone in a supermarket or doctor's office. While it's easy enough to walk away from this album and forget all about it after it's over, it is remarkably engaging while it's on. The program consists of Benson's "Mimosa," two Klugh originals ("Brazilian Stomp" and the characteristic "Since You're Gone"), two Marcus Miller pieces ("Dreamin'," "Mt. Airy Road") and two by "20/20" writer Randy Goodrum ("Jamaica" and, with Harvey Mason, "Collaboration"). None of the music here is terribly remarkable. But Benson brings life to each piece, simply when he solos, showing his astonishing agility throughout for taking a groove and lifting it bodily with his life-affirming playing. Highlights: "Mt. Airy Road," "Brazilian Stomp," "Since You're Gone" (the album's single) and "Collaboration." Unfortunately, Benson's own "Mimosa" is one of the album's most unremarkable moments but it probably ranks higher than most of the material Benson recorded for Warner Bros. after this.

Also: George Benson kept busy during his Warner Bros. years lending his fine guitar to notable jazz work of others including, "Time Passed Autumn (Part II)" from The Claus Ogerman Orchestra's Gate of Dreams (Warner Bros., 1977), the disappointing "Gotcha!" from Pee Wee Ellis' Home In The Country (Savoy, 1977), the excellent "Mister Mellow" from Maynard Ferguson's Conquistador (Columbia, 1977), "To Her Ladyship" from Freddie Hubbard's Super Blue (Columbia, 1978), a brief bit on "Love Island" from Deodato's Love Island (Warner Bros., 1978), "Coming Back Home" and Benson's own funky "Hip Skip" from Tony Williams' The Joy of Flying (Columbia, 1979), the particularly jazzy "Gotham City" and "Hi-Fly" from Dexter Gordon's Gotham City (Columbia, 1981), the outstanding "Orange Express" from Sadao Watanabe's Orange Express (Columbia, 1981), Jimmy Smith's Off The Top (Elektra Musician, 1982), Stanley Turrentine's Straight Ahead (Blue Note, 1984) and "Sunrise" and "A Mouse In The House" from Chet Atkins' Stay Tuned (Columbia, 1985).

To hear Benson as a guest vocalist, check out "What's Goin' On" from Harvey Mason's Funk In A Mason Jar (Arista, 1977), "Street Tattoo" from Lalo Schifrin's soundtrack to Boulevard Nights (Warner Bros., 1978) and "I've Got Your Love" from Ronnie Foster's Delight (Columbia, 1979). There may be others, but I just don't know.

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