Pete Callard has a second look at George Benson: this time his later, smoother style.
This month we continue to explore the soloing style of one of the greatest and most successful of all jazz artists, George Benson. Last time we checked out some examples of his straight-ahead, ‘changes’ based playing with which he made his mark in the 60s and early 70s. Although Benson never entirely stopped playing jazz and bebop, from the 70s onwards he began to explore smoother, more groove based music, and it’s his style from this era that is our focus.
In 1976 Benson signed to Warner and released one of the defining albums of his career. Breezin’ featured the instrumental title track and the José Feliciano tune Affirmation, but most notably Benson’s vocals on Leon Russell’s This Masquerade; a huge hit that won the guitarist a Grammy for Record of the Year. Alongside his solo career, Benson continued to work with other artists including, in the 70s, Minnie Ripperton, trumpeter Maynard Feguson, Tony Williams and Freddie Hubbard, and played and sang on Another Life on Stevie Wonder’s Songs In The Key Of Life album. In 1979 he also became a Jehovah’s Witness.
The success of Breezin’ - the first platinum-selling jazz album - led Benson to release a series of increasingly commercial hit records, but it was the Quincy Jones produced Give Me The Night in 1980 that proved his real pop breakthrough, with the Rod Temperton penned title track making it into the top ten pop and R&B charts. Through the 80s Benson enjoyed huge commercial success, with his vocals increasingly to the fore and his guitar taking a backseat - indeed, on a personal note, growing up in the 80s I never realised that George Benson even played the guitar. It certainly came as a shock when I first heard him! Benson returned to jazz for 1989’s Tenderly, an album of standards, and 1990’s Big Boss Band with the Count Basie Orchestra, and continues to record and perform, with 2013’s Inspiration: A Tribute To Nat King Cole, considered by critics to be among his finest recordings. In 2009 Benson received the highest award in jazz, being recognised as a Jazz Master by the National Endowment For The Arts.
This month’s examples focus on the smoother, funkier side of Benson’s playing that dominated his output in the 70s and 80s. There’s ten examples in all, of which only Examples 1, 2 and 6 feature chord changes. The others, in keeping with his music of the period, are all minor, dominant or II-V vamp ideas, and see Benson exploring the rhythmic, harmonic, melodic and technical possibilities opened up to him by the lack of harmonic strictures. Alongside Benson’s fluid, bubbling single-note soloing approach we’ll also examine some of his post-Wes Montgomery style octave and chordal soloing ideas, and the examples cover, among other things, pentatonic substitution, superimposed arpeggios, chromaticism, patterns, outside playing, note flurries and sweep and economy picking.
Although Benson never entirely stopped playing jazz and bebop, from the 70s he began to explore smoother, more groove based styles.
George Benson with his ever faithful Ibanez