George Benson: White Rabbit (2011)
After three late-1960s A&M albums with mastermind Creed Taylor prior to the creation of CTI Records, guitarist George Benson hit 1971 running with two CTI debuts, issued a few months apart. Beyond the Blue Horizon was closer, in complexion, to his A&M recordingsharkening back, even, to his impressive 1966 Columbia Records two-punch, It's Uptown and The George Benson Cookbookalthough the virtuosic, soul- drenched guitarist was clearly evolving as a player and maturing into one whose firebrand, virtuosic tendencies were becoming refreshingly balanced with greater maturity and restraint.
White Rabbit was (and remains) an anomaly in Benson's prodigious catalogue, with its heavy orchestration by CTI regular Don Sebesky. It's also the album that first paired Earl Klugha guitarist who, in the face of Charlie Byrd and Laurindo Almeida, took the nylon-string into the realm of light funk and soulwith the electric Benson. The partnership would last a couple more years to the more decidedly groove- centric Body Talk (CTI, 1973), which foreshadowed Benson's rocket to stardom with his move to Warner Bros. and 1976's megahit, Breezin'.
Despite some truly dated materialin particular the title track, an overblown look at Jefferson Airplane's drug-drenched, 1967 hit singleBenson transcends it all, with some brilliant playing, even as "White Rabbit" strives to break out of Sebesky's overbearing bolero-like arrangement. Herbie Hancock, too, turns in an energetic electric piano solo, and comps with soft (and welcome) pushes towards the outer reaches during Hubert Laws' flute feature, creating some much-needed tension and release, even as the track heads towards an overly cluttered ending that, with tympanis pounding, is indicative of CTI at its worst.
That said, Sebesky's gentle strings and harp on "Theme from 'Summer of 42'" are far more successfuland appropriate. It's easy listening, to be sure, with Benson joining Klugh on nylon string guitar, as the song moves into light Latin territory, but the more change-heavy take on a classical pieceVilla Lobos' "Little Train," taken from the composer's "Bachianas Brasilerias #2," is an album highlight; Benson's fleet-fingers matched by Hancock and bolstered by bassist Ron Carter and drummer Billy Cobham, who cook without overbearance.
Another dated track, The Mamas and The Papas' pre-Summer of Love hit, "California Dreamin,'" begins with an almost non-sequitur of Spanish tinges but, more than anywhere else on the album, demonstrates the simpatico interplay between Benson and Klugh, suggesting that Klugh was, indeed, a star in the making. Klugh's gorgeous intro to Benson's closing "El Mar"the album's only originalsets the stage for an 11-minute highlight that suggests a stylistic breadth to Benson that, despite a subsequent career living as much in the pop world as anywhere else, has continued to this day.
An anomaly in Benson's catalogue, perhaps, and one with its fair share of weaknesses to offset its many strengths, this CTI Masterworks reissue of White Rabbit remains, in many ways, a curiosity that transitions between his more mainstream efforts and the soulful jazz/pop star he was about to become; not without its merits, but not essential either
Track Listing: White Rabbit; Theme from "Summer of '42"; Little Train; California Dreaming; El Mar.
Personnel: George Benson: electric guitar; John Frosk: trumpet, flugelhorn; Alan Rubin: trumpet, flugelhorn; Wayne Andre: trombone, baritone horn; Jim Buffington: French horn; Phil Bodner: flute, alto flute, oboe, baritone horn; Hubert Laws; flute, alto flute, piccolo; George Marge: flute, alto flute, clarinet, oboe, English horn; Romeo Penque: clarinet, bass clarinet, alto flute, oboe, English horn; Jane Taylor: bassoon; Herbie Hancock: electric piano; Earl Klugh: guitar (1-4); Jay Berliner: guitar; Ron Carter: bass; Billy Cobham: drums; Airto Moreira: percussion, vocal (1, 4); Phil Kraus: vibraphone, percussion; Gloria Agostini: harp; Don Sebesky: arranger.