At some point George Benson morphed from a guitarist who occasionally sang into a singer who occasionally played guitar. Benson’s Breezin’ (Warner Bros, 1976) launched his career trajectory to new heights based upon “This Masquerade,” his only vocal turn on the album.
But oh, what a vocal “This Masquerade” was. It propelled Breezin’ to Number One on the pop charts and the album won multiple Grammys, including Record of the Year, and his recording formula was set for the next 20 years. The follow-up, In Flight (Warner Bros, 1977) featured Benson’s soulful tenor vocals on four of the six tracks and, while In Flight didn’t boast a song as memorable as “This Masquerade,” his guitar was still the musical centerpiece of the music.
Jazz aficionados rightly scratched their heads as Benson dove headlong into pop music and, by the time of 1984’s 20/20 (Warner Bros, 1984), the guitar had virtually disappeared in a pea soup of limp arrangements, synthesizers and syndrums, the quintessential instrument that dates ’80s records. The nadir of Benson’s career might be Irreplaceable (GRP, 2004) which made a bid for hip-hop radio through sincere, but contrived tunes such as “Cell Phone,” where Benson tried to place a call to heaven on the title device (no joke).
As a vocalist, Benson has proven to be at his best when the material is as strong as his 63 year old voice, and Guitar Man is a splendid showcase for it. The Beatles and Benson get along very well together (reference The Other Side of Abbey Road (A&M, 1969) for further evidence), as his skilled fingers strum the six strings on a lush interpretation of “I Want To Hold Your Hand.” The mood of this recording is lights down low, slow dance and romance music. This is a record made by a grown-up for grown-ups. Benson has no need to make albums with one eye on the pop charts anymore. Recognizing his reign there is over, he can put his emphasis simply on playing and singing whatever he feels like.
Despite its title, Guitar Man doesn’t feature a lot of frenzied jamming and high-flying solos, but Benson doesn’t have to hammer with pyrotechnics. When he’s on his game, as he is whether he’s crooning Stevie Wonder‘s “My Cherie Amour” or gently coaxing the notes out of his guitar on John Coltrane‘s “Naima,” it’s a demonstration of an artist confidently allowing the music to speak for itself.
Whether he’s swinging on “Tequila,” with keyboardist Joe Sample, drummer Harvey Mason, and bassist Ben Williams, loping through “Don’t Know Why,” or straight-up crooning on “My One and Only Love,” Benson’s sense of taste, phrasing and ability to swing remain undiminished by time. Ably assisted by an accomplished assemblage of musicians, this is one of the best albums of the year. Just don’t call it a comeback. George Benson is still The Guitar Man and even when it seemed he had forgotten for awhile, he always was.
Track Listing:Tenderly; I Want To Hold Your Hand; My Cherie Amour; Naima; Tequila; Don’t Know Why; The Lady In My Life; My One and Only Love; Paper Moon; Danny Boy; Since I Fell For You; Fingerlero.
Personnel: George Benson: guitar, vocals; David Garfield: piano, keyboards, rhythm arrangement (2-8, 11, 12); Paul Jackson, Jr.: rhythm guitar (2); Ray Fuller: rhythm guitar (2); Freddie Washington: bass (2); Oscar Seaton, Jr. (2): drums; Charlie Bishart: violin, viola (2, 7); Dan Higgins: flute, alto flute, clarinet (2); Oscar Castro-Neves: orchestral arrangement (2); Ben Williams: bass (3-5, 7-9, 12); Harvey Mason: drums (3-5, 7-9, 12); Lenny Castro: percussion (3, 5, 6, 12); Joe Sample: piano (5, 8, 9, 12); Chris Walden: keyboards, string arrangement (7).
This review originally appeared in All About Jazz