Jazz Guitar Hero: George Benson
Twelve exemplary recorded performances from one of the greatest legends of the jazz guitar.
Any discussion concerning the most important guitarists in jazz must include George Benson. He along with fellow six-stringer, Pat Martino, were the pillars of jazz on the instrument in the 1970s, before trends changed, and focus turned to more additives and categorical obfuscations.
My attraction to Benson was what ignited my life’s work. As a fifteen year old I thought, “If I can one day make the exhilaration and full range of emotion that I feel from listening to him, that’s what I want to do!”
Today, Benson has continued to practice, evolve and excel in his musical gifts. However, I’m not sure that he is sufficiently appreciated by modern-day jazz guitarists and students. As an answer to that and as a listening aid and primer for aspiring jazz guitarists, I’m republishing this article that I was asked to write in 2011. It originally appeared on a now defunct website by a very well respected jazz journalist. It includes my commentary of a dozen of George’s recorded performances that I feel offer important glimpses into his style during different periods throughout his career. These are just some of my favorites, and by no means should be thought of as a “best of” list. I could easily pick twelve more cuts and wax on with equal enthusiasm. With that said, please read, listen and most of all enjoy!
Track 1: Eternally
CD: It’s Uptown (Columbia 9183)
On this latin-esque, minor blues tune from his 1965 debut album It’s Uptown, George unleashes the controlled urgency and masterful fluidity that would become his signature in the 1970s. Although the tune is presented in a rhythmic style that suggests the laid-back cool of a 1960’s pool party, Benson comes out of the gate on fire, making nothing but exacting melodic and rhythmic musical statements with not one extraneous note throughout his five solo choruses. Here, his playing style although perhaps not fully developed, is quite apparent and clearly distinguishable from its influences (Wes Montgomery, Grant Green and Hank Garland are a few that come to mind). The elements that make up is singular style: an urban-blues consciousness, blistering technique, rhythmic freedom and melodic and harmonic sophistication, are all on display in this riveting two minutes of improvisation.
Track 2: Ready and Able
CD: The George Benson Cookbook (Columbia 9184)
After the crisp execution of this Jimmy Smith Penned melody on the chords of I Got Rhythm, the thing that is just as exciting for me is to hear Benson’s comping behind Ronnie Cuber’s baritone solo. It’s a lesson in taste and subtlety as well as an indication of why a musician’s rhythmic feel is so important. Although George’s chordal ideas are voluminous, they are most properly placed (in both rhythm and octave range) to excite and propel the music and seemingly, always relevant in those same ways to the drama of the soloist’s phrases.
Benson’s solo on this tune takes the excitement level up even more, which is quite a feat considering the superb solo that he follows. I’m particularly fond of his harmonic vision in this solo, which makes what and how he plays on these changes seem particularly unique and personal to him. As always, his command of the jazz idiom and syntax, and how he is choosing to fuse these with blues and R&B leanings to form a distinctive and influential jazz guitar style is apparent in this solo. A much more obvious observation though, is that his technique here is simply mind-boggling. The thing that makes this solo so breathtaking isn’t how fast or lengthy his lines are, as much as how he is able to think and ‘hear ahead’ in order to shape finely crafted melodic ideas through the chord progressions. The component that completes his stunning technique is his quicksilver response and coordination that allows him to execute so flawlessly. This solo is true jazz improvisation!
Track 3: Shape of Things That Are and Were
CD: Shape of Things to Come (Verve 000967402)
On this tune, a blues head by Benson from his 1968 A&M Records debut, he both gives a nod to his predecessor Wes Montgomery, then breaks the mold. The setting of this recording was actually Montgomery’s old turf (same record label, producer, arranger, musicians) as George was offered a new recording contract in order to replace Wes just after his untimely death.
Benson’s playing here is the perfect example of a jazz musician who has fully realized his own voice on their instrument. His approach, rhythmic and otherwise, has the inherent essence of a decade or more of R&B and soul music that he adds to the jazz mix. In his block-chord soloing he freely employs one of the techniques that was integral to Wes’ style without ever sounding like a mimic. Actually, Benson takes Wes up a notch and in his single-line playing especially, states that this is the next level for jazz guitar playing. He shows off two new techniques that are jaw dropping: a risqué sweep picking and an ability to play in flurries that are removed from the strictures of the meter. The thing that makes all this dazzle most amazing for me though, is that it is so controlled and tempered by a spirit of extreme musicality. It never sounds like he’s just showing off… even though he might be!
Track 4: The Gentle Rain
CD: Beyond the Blue Horizon (Mosaic Contemporary)
From my perspective, this tune represents a period of exploitation, experimentation and growth for George Benson during his days on CTI Records (1971 – 1976). This jazz-bossa standard is treated more freely rhythmically and at times suggests more urban, New-Yorican, latin rhythms and double-time backbeat thanks to the polyrhythms of Jack DeJonnette. Benson uses this active backdrop as a springboard for his own rhythmically aggressive playing on the solo vamp. I also like how he employs the use of Ron Carter on cello to create sound painting melodies and smears as a supplement to the organ, drums, and percussion rhythm section. He even looks to the cello for melodic interaction as he begins his solo.
These abstractions create a mood that’s a perfect foil for what could possibly be go nowhere I chord to V chord blowing. George uses his fierce technique to build this solo to a frenzy, while organically using his favorite elements: the blues, a probing harmonic awareness to inform his single-line ideas, block chords, a keen melodic and rhythmic sense, and a controlled abandon. He takes chances here that only those who know and trust that elusive musical spirit can. Whether it’s by leaps, steps, spins, lulls, cries or shouts, his ideas are always delivered with grace and are musically sound and emotionally moving.
Track 5: Plum
CD: Body Talk (Columbia ZK-45222)
This track contains some of the most exciting and articulate jazz guitar phrasing I’ve ever heard. On his original composition, chock-full of moving chords, George shows us his artist nature by taking liberties with the how he chooses to build the track to create a total performance and presentation.
He uses the intro – an easy, loping, two-chord vamp – as a precursor, soloing sparsely as a suggestion of where he’ll be heading later on. In this AABA tune he states the A section melody only once and then proceeds to improvise through the entire remainder of the form, repeating an additional A section melody again as a kind of recap. I’m fortunate to know the actual melody of the complete tune from working with Stanley Turrentine (George’s label-mate on CTI) who, many years later, had this tune in his repertoire. However, prior to that experience I had no clue that there was a B section melody! Regardless, this track proceeds from section to section so seamlessly and is so perfectly spellbinding that I never questioned it. And actually, the A section melody is a complete musical statement unto itself.
Benson is now at the top of his game as a guitarist and jazz musician and can seemingly do whatever he pleases and is making all the right moves. His solo over the 2nd A, B and final A sections of the melody form transcends the guitar and is in the realm of the highest level in jazz. The rhythmic, melodic and harmonic freedom and command with which he navigates these progressions, coupled with his technical mastery of his instrument, should have him realized in the pantheon of the greatest jazz musicians of all time – the same group of musicians that I use as my reference point in making the statement (which may seem bold to some). After he devours the chord changes on the form, he breaks to restate the A melody again (a palate cleanse), before indulging in the two chord vamp like a vacationer at an ocean-liner dessert bar. The funk, blues and jazz smorgasbord of ideas and technique seems never-ending as the track fades.
Track 6: Summer Wishes Winter Dreams
CD: Bad Benson (Sony/BMG 724211)
Many might find this pick way too schmaltzy, but I can’t help including this movie theme ballad, super-sweetly orchestrated by Don Sebesky, because it highlights a side of George Benson, the musician, that deserves consideration.
Here we find Benson in the setting made successful by Wes Montgomery on A&M Records almost a decade before – jazz guitar accompanied by full orchestra. I believe that it takes nothing less than an instrumental master with star quality to carry an arrangement such as this – which winds up wrapping itself around Benson’s beautifully lush tone, voice-like phrasing, and perfectly controlled pace. His embellishments of the melody show a musical depth that transcends jazz as a category and breaks through to just being plain good music. I love the gorgeous chord melody playing and the brilliant mini cadenza just before the end.
Track 7: Sky Dive
CD: George Benson in Concert – Carnegie Hall (CBS Associated 6009)
Every Set needs a burnout tune and this was it at this 1975 Carnegie Hall concert. Benson takes this Freddie Hubbard tune to the stratosphere!
He states the melody as though he wrote it himself using both single notes and chords; and I’m amazed every time I hear the knuckle-busting fills he twists between the phrases of the melody in the 2nd and 3rd A sections. His solo is nothing but masterful. He uses all of the tools available to him – single lines, double-stops, octaves, octaves with an added note (which would soon become his own trademark) and block chords – to most dramatically powerful effect. The feeling of excitement that he’s able to evoke via his instrument is incredible. It’s tantamount to the spiritual heights that he reaches in this solo that near its end he wails repeatedly on bent notes, in effect crying out. He had played everything else, there was no place left to go.
In jazz, I don’t think that there is any other guitarist that has shown us the emotional range and depth that is accessible on the instrument. Because of the inherent characteristics of the classic jazz guitar sound, i.e. sans effects, at its best it’s a satisfyingly warm, mellow and beautiful listening experience. But when it’s time to burn or get down, often guitarists turn to effects to bolster them against the clean-toned guitar’s physical challenges in that realm. This tune is a perfect example of the soaring heights that Benson could reach without the use of effects, via his superior talent, singular vision, musicianship and style.
Track 8: Affirmation
CD: Breezin’ (Warner Bros 75369)
A backbeat has never disqualified melody or harmony to my ears, so when I listen to this cut I hear George Benson, jazz musician, at the height of his improvisational and creative abilities. The Breezin’ album, where this tune appears, was the breakthrough for George, making him a major crossover artist. But what pleased me so at the time was that there were plenty of juicy and lengthy guitar solos for me to wrap my brain around. There are also a fairly even blend of harmonic motion and modal vamps over which the solos occur throughout the record, allowing him to express himself fully.
This tune represents classic Benson in a few different ways. During the 1970s it had become pretty standard practice for him as an improviser to first deal with moving chord progressions during his solos and then tackle modal vamps, and that is the case with Affirmation. His solo on this tune contains the usual devices in his arsenal, except the octave with additional note technique (he does use regular octaves). In place of that however, rather than the strummed octave, he plucks them simultaneously using his thumb and index finger creating a more stinging effect. This as a matter of fact, is another technical variation (in addition to the octave with added note) that he made a part of his trademark style. Otherwise, the singing melodicism, cascading single notes, bluesy funk and gritty, flurrying double-stops are all there.
I also have to note the transcendent nature of George Benson’s language as a jazz improviser, which is realized on this album and is perfectly evident on this particular piece. Rather than rely upon tried and true melody lines from the jazz idiom, he (in true jazz musician form) draws from these melodies with measured precision, realizing them as a portion of the total information in his melodic palette. Combining these with the melodies of the blues culture and American folk and popular cultures, Benson creates solos that represent the best in jazz in their idiomatic and rhythmic integrity, as well as their inclusive nature and expansive scope.
Track 9: Soulful Strut
CD: Livin’ Inside Your Love (Warner Bros 2-3277)
Back in 1968 this tune was an instrumental pop/soul radio hit. George and company’s feeling must have been: ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’, as were rollin’ along just fine and seemed to be enjoying the ride since they had found the formula for success. Even the Claus Ogerman’s strings’ in the opening statement give more than a nod to the intro of one of their hits from a previous album or two. But I guess that’s human nature even for jazz musicians – work what works (at least until it becomes stale).
Benson and his group are all settled in and cozyily familiar with their own sound and feel. Everything is fitting here – from the blend of the instruments’ sounds and the parts they play in this feel-good arrangement, to the overall sound of the production – for George’s guitar to stand out front and carry the track home. And he does it with polish, energy and in his unmistakable style. The backbeat, clavinet and strings may have led some jazz fans to turn away concluding that his jazz days were over. But the sense of authority and sure-footed pacing he’s playing with at this point in his career, coupled with the knowledge, energy and excitement of his jazz mentality and his even more accurate ridiculous technique, leads me to say: they don’t know what they’re missing.
Track 10: We All Remember Wes
CD: Weekend in L.A. (Warner Bros 75370)
True jazz lovers and jazz guitar geeks should rejoice when they hear this one! It’s a song written in tribute to the one and only Wes Montgomery by the other one and only Stevie Wonder. And although the song’s rhythm is a pseudo-disco beat, it’s got a rock solid, head bobbing groove and carries some meaty chord changes.
Here is George at his improvisational best. Not a note is wasted as he makes his way through these changes, one second like a heavyweight boxing champ and the next a balance beam gymnast. There are countless causes for oohs and ahhs here, but never so much as the slightest stumble. His time-feel here is off the chart. It feels like he’s so at one with this groove that he’s both inside of it and riding on top of it at the same time.
This is Benson in the zone. And master that he is, he knows that this one chorus is plenty.
Track 11: Being with You
CD: In Your Eyes (Collectibles 7731)
By 1983 when this record was released Benson was a pop star facing all of the responsibilities to meet continuing success at the very least. And because of the changes that would begin to take place for the next twenty-plus years in the music business and the sound of music, we’re hearing George in a jewelry shop here rather than a chicken shack.
But on this tune (written by my childhood friend, drummer Omar Hakim), George channels his jazz guitar persona. His guitar sings this melody and I believe every word, along with every amazing in between the melody fill! On his solo he exploits all his powers and by the melody out it should be clear that although he’s moved on, we should welcome him every time he wants to visit.
Track 12: Poquito Spanish, Poquito Funk
CD: Standing Together (GRP 99252)
I hadn’t received a visit from George in quite some time and I must admit, I kinda missed him. Then one night in the late 90s while I was driving home from a gig he paid me visit via the radio station playing a new tune he’d just released. I visited with him a while and then found myself pulling over to the side of the road so I could give him my full attention.
On this guiro-burnished, nouveau-latin, funk piece, the production quality is one that will probably never sound dated in any bad way. Both the production and the groove are to die for. George plays the vocal role of some ‘urban’ characters in the intro before he graces us with the melody in octaves first, then finally adding his unison voice to his guitar, the last of his stylistic trademarks. His voice accompanies the first part of the solo, perfectly following his moves from octaves to double-stops and back. In part two of the solo he features his single-line playing, at first with the pick, but quickly switching to the thumb. His ideas are as compelling as ever harmonically, but with more of a thoughtful probing and emotional depth. I like the fact that he plays his most interesting stuff jazz-wise without the pick. He’s havin’ a good ol’ time with having nothing to prove really. As one of his alter egos say to him during the track, he’s still the baddest.