"It's Uptown" was recorded when George was only 23 and already a virtuoso. His flying fingers and stunning creativity are all over every song. He controls the flow totally, and at the time of recording he and his band were obviously very well rehearsed. Lonnie Smith, the organ player, has proven himself to be a unique player on his own recordings, and on this date he plays well but is a little further back in the mix than usual, although his strong presence is felt on every song. The other important member was Ronnie Cuber, whose baritone sax is always perfectly in unison with George's creative guitar lines. When Ronnie gets a chance to solo, he makes the most of it, and his deep-toned baritone sax gave the quartet the edge it had over the typical tenor/organ trios of the day.
Another factor in the success of this album is the writing. The tunes George wrote, as well as the covers, are highly melodic and always interesting. On his solos, George is digging in hard, you can hear it, trying to lay down a solo he'll be happy with - which for him was an enormously high goal every time. George demands extremely high quality in his music, and in order to do that, he had to practice hard enough to get to be one of the best guitar players in the world. Only then would he be able to satisfy himself, and at the time of this recording (his second album), he was nearly there, although probably not even close in his own mind. Another factor was his tenure with Jack McDuff's group; he's said that playing live every night with Jack forced him to come up with consistently inventive solos, to avoid repeating himself. That's how he "got good". (Hard to understand why McDuff never let him sing, although I've heard McDuff hated singers). So, by the time of "It's Uptown", he was definitely ready to make his mark on the world.
George sings three vocals. "Summertime" has a great, funky arrangement, and "Stormy Weather" is similar. "A Foggy Day" is also bright and sunny (no pun intended), but (slightly) the lesser of the three because George goes a bit overboard on that one. One thing that's evident about George's music even early on: his main goal is to make it interesting, hard-swinging, and with plenty of good feeling. He plays ballads occasionally, and is superb at those too, but in his heart, I think he always wants to convey happiness, not sadness or melancholy. His music has remained that way ever since. "Willow Weep For Me" is a good example. He plays it as the ballad it is, but it's more of a technical showcase for him than an attempt to evoke the touching lyrics and wistful feeling of that song. He's bursting with creativity and even on a slow song, he smokes, because that's how he hears it in his head. "Willow" impressed and intimated more guitar players than perhaps any other song on the album - stunning playing.
Of the instrumentals on "It's Uptown", so many stand out: "Ain't That Peculiar" with a funky, tight arrangement; the mysterioso "Eternally", the Spanish-style "Bullfight" which is done only with percussion; and the inventive and unique "Clockwise" which is a perfect lead-off hitter for the album (the title indicates soloing order).
This reissue is cause for great celebration. 24/96 sound, and five incredible bonus tracks! Three are outtakes from the sessions including the first-ever take of "Clockwise" (the track which so impressed Columbia executives that they instantly gave him a contract, which George talks about in the liner notes), and the exquisite "Johnny Hammond's Bossa Nova" which GB wrote. How this song got cut, I'll never know, but finally it's been placed back where it belongs. The other two bonus tracks are from Lonnie Smith's first album and they're among the best from that, especially "Sidewinder".
George mentions in his liner notes that those were days when "artistry was very important, and it took precedence over everything else". His record company gave him a chance to show his talent, without telling him what to do and how to do it. Those people are heroes. They let a man's talent speak for itself, didn't concern themselves with irrelevant things like hair, fashion, and nose jobs. In the course of several decades, priorities shifted until 'artistry' meant absolutely nothing, as it does today. And that fact has affected and changed George Benson as well as everyone else who just wants to make their music. As powerful and respected as George is today, after many years of top-selling albums, he still has to gear his albums toward the public-at-large's tastes. He can't do what he wants: play and record jazz. It has to be watered down so more people will buy it. The last time he was given the chance to make a jazz album exactly like he wanted ("Tenderly"), it tanked, and GB has often expressed bitterness about that. Even after his recent move to the jazz label GRP, his albums are still watered down. And now, he doesn't play with the fire he once had, before he was #1 in the world and was still trying to prove his talent to people. It's a shame, and to me personally, a real heartbreaker because there is only one GB, and there will never be another like him. I'd like to see him doing what he can do best, in his waning years as a professional musician. Even he thinks so, apparently: on the liner notes to "Cookbook" he says that the best thing he could do right now would be to hook up with Lonnie and Ronnie again. But, "It's Uptown" will always be there, and it will never let you down if you're looking for quality music unencumbered by commercialism. It, and "Cookbook", are true classics. I don't give out 5-star ratings easily, but this album deserves 6!