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A Curious Selection
on 16 September 2011
George Benson has had something of an interesting career. His early career was spent in the shadow of, and then heralded as the successor to, Wes Montgomery. After this he found a nice niche as a solid player producing a series of decent sounding jazz records which slowly raised his profile as a very compotent and talent instrumentalist. He then took his career into the charts with a series of radio friendly increasly crossover records which began to feature vocals to the point where the guitar became secondary before heading back more towards his jazz roots. This five disc collection picks from the commercial successes and moves towards the climax back in the jazz world again.
For most more casual listeners "Breezin'" is the album which put Benson on the musical map. It's one of the first proper crossover records with its emphasis on the guitar still but combining vocals on "This Masquerade". The music is very radio friendly and drenched, at times, in some rather saccharine strings. It's nice enough but may sound a little cloying to some ears. Unfortunately for some "This Masquerade" proves one of its finest moments as it's clear this is one of the reasons the record company are clearly using to shift Benson into the commercial pop/soul/jazz crossover market.
"Weekend In LA" follows and gives an indication of what an accomplished live performer Benson is. Here the mix is nicely placed between the classic jazz numbers and some of the more soulful vocal material. There is even a rendition of "The Greatest Love Of All" which Benson originally recorded for a Biopic about Mohammed Ali. It's a very enjoyable listen and a nice souvenier of the sound Benson would almost completely abandon over the next few years.
This is most graphically illustrated by the inclusion of the mega successful "Give Me The Night" album. Produced by Quincy Jones, who was on an absolute purple patch of great soul/funk/disco albums at the time, this is Benson at his most vocal and soulful. The material is, for the jazz fan, annoying commercial and very good indeed. It is slickly done and beautifully crafted, including a great selection of songs written by Rod Temperton (of Heatwave fame and principle Jones collaborator at this time) including "Give Me The Night", and "Love x Love" - both of which were massive worldwide pop and disco hits. There is a pretty decent stab at jazz standard "Moody's Mood" featuring Patti Austin, but almost all of the rest of it falls into the pop/soul crossover. That said this is about as good as it possibly gets and there is much to enjoy on this album, making it the highlight of the set.
It moves to two later albums where Benson goes firmly back to the jazz he first began with, and clearly loves the most. "Suddenly" includes a series of familiar songs sung in Benson's lightly lilting tenor. He has clean sound which is more a soul voice with a nice line in jazz phrasings than being a classicly clean, smooth jazz singer. He does, however scat pretty well. "Suddenly" provides the perfect environment for his voice and this really is a pretty good, not necessarily well known, album.
The final album in the set is a Count Basie tribute, "Big Boss Band". This is probably best described as not one of the best ideas ever. The big band, the material, and Benson's voice all fail to gel in quite a spectacular fashion. At best forgetable and at worst an album which shows up Benson's vocal shortcomings in the context. "On Green Dolphin Street" and "Portrait Of Jennie" are probably the only things here worh returning to. This is a swing heavy album performed by a man clearly not comfortable with the genre and it really does no justice to the set including this.
The choices provide snapshots and almost no sense of the artistic development some of the other Original Album Series do. There is a lot to choose from as Benson had a long and very productive career with Warner Brothers but this set is frustatingingly fragmented and almost all those tempted to buy this will probably find, despite the reasonable price, one album surplus to their needs be they of the jazz or soul persuasion. It could easily have been better spreading the work out across two sets giving a sense of development and avoiding a patchy and ultimately unsatisfying selection included here.