George Benson: Finding His Groove In Inspiration

Belinda Ware By

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I felt every moment of it. You can’t put together a record like this without putting your heart into it. I got that from Nat King Cole. He put his heart into everything he did.
—George Benson
George Benson is a quintessential master of jazz whose professional musical career continues to flourish over decades due to his charisma, wit, showmanship and a succession of multiple hit record releases that are foundational in the evolution of contemporary jazz.

As a seasoned jazz connoisseur, Benson stays in demand as a sought after performing artist as seen in his steady concert schedules taking to the stage in countries around the world. Simply put, Benson is on a mission to keep jazz current through his innate talent to innovate the sound of jazz both in studio and in the live concert arena. In both voice and guitar work, his improvisational grooves are innovative raising the bar on the unlimited nature of the music while taking it to a new platform and style of expression in today's rhythm and sound.

It is fitting that Benson has earned the title of a pioneer in the world of jazz with his triumphant achievement in crossing traditional jazz over into the pop market, initially with his Billboard hit, This "Masquerade," a song that led to his first platinum album, Breezin. (Warner Bros., 1976). As a live performing artist, he has amassed international public appeal through his unique gifts in jazz improvisation. Looking at his work on guitar, Benson is known for attacking the melody of a song with blazing impromptu runs while harmonizing his smooth R&B vocals sometimes mimicking his guitar solos in the form of scat. No show is ever a carbon copy of another. He is a musical icon characterized by his masterful skills in taking his hits and making them new in each performance.

As a recording artist and NEA Jazz Master, he has won 10 Grammy Awards as a jazz front man for his crossover solo hits including the popular tunes, "On Broadway," "Being with You," "Give Me the Night," and "This Masquerade." At the core of his conceptual originality, Benson is a purist when it comes to the art of studio recording sessions remaining true to his original flavor of the jazz sound.

As a self-taught jazz guitarist, Benson can be described as an artistic genius of melodic and chordal improvisation fused with the humility of a man passionate about the art of jazz. He can pick up a Gibson L-5 guitar and make it scat like Ella Fitzgerald on single-note melody runs. He credits some of the unfolding of his musical gifts to the life changing moments he experienced hanging out and jamming with a few jazz greats of legendary stature early on in his career, mentors such as the incomparable Jack McDuff, Wes Montgomery, John Coltrane, and Stanley Turrentine.

From the inception of his walk down Jazz Lane, Benson found his sound to involve the combination of his dual talents as both a jazz musician complimented by his jazz/soul vocals. It was through his initial recording sessions in studio as a child that he developed his instinctual ability to breathe life into songs capturing the poignant emotion of the human experience through his artistry as a singer, musician, and lyrical storyteller.

Benson currently has a new CD that has been in the making for quite some time. It can be described as deeply personal in its presentation. This CD represents a harmonious celebration of the songs and legacy of the first musical icon that influenced Benson to embrace his inner musical talents and pursue jazz during his childhood.

Inspiration (Concord, 2013) tells the real life story from childhood to present of Benson's respect and admiration for the musical catalog of the legendary Nat "King" Cole and how his exposure to the hit records of Cole helped to shape his destiny to follow the path of jazz as a professional artist.

As a child, Benson looked up to Cole with the admiration of a personal hero. In a recent interview with Benson, he spoke about the impression Cole made upon him. "As a child, it was exciting for me to listen to the music of Nat King Cole. He could sing and play piano with depth and originality. His music touched my heart and helped me to see what was inside of me while embracing his rich purity of sound," said Benson.

Benson saw Cole's musical talent as an inspiration to open up and explore his own inner talents that would soon emerge culminating into the jazz front man he is today.

Looking at the careers of both Cole and Benson, Cole's influence upon Benson is notably enlightening. Running parallel in line with Cole's path in music, Benson established himself as an exceptional instrumentalist on the jazz scene at the inception of his career. Like Cole, Benson later became heralded as a jazz/pop pioneer whose unforgettable singing voice captured the attention of the world crossing over cultures and generations in his ongoing career successes. His triumph in jazz is signature to his lasting appeal to audiences of all ages around the world.

In reference to Inspiration, Benson's approach to Cole's catalog is esoteric in the selection of songs that he interprets with the precision of a true artist going back in time to his favorite songs as a child. As a jazz visionary in musical arrangement, Benson brings fresh vocal mixes and rich guitar accompaniments that create impressive minuets of his personal interpretations of the Cole catalog.

Inspiration opens with "Little Georgie Benson," a scratchy vintage studio recording of Benson as a child singing Cole's "Mona Lisa" at the young age of eight years old. In a recent interview, Benson shared the poignant story of how he was transformed the day his mother took him to a recording studio for the first time. "My mother found ways to encourage me in music. I remember going to the studio at the age of eight and I sang 'Mona Lisa,' one of my favorite tunes by Cole while playing a ukelele," said Benson. In listening to this particular recording of the voice of an eight year-old Benson, his voice soars with the pure expression and human sincerity of a little boy whose gifts reflect an early maturity as an interpreter of music.

Inspiration is like no other recording that Benson has recorded to date. The project is full of nuances and cutting edge production choices as seen by the featured guest artists selected to record on the project. In addition to several stars joining him as featured guests and fitting with the title of the project itself, Benson engaged a group of youth artists representing the Henry Mancini Institute Orchestra to record the symphonic tracks for Inspiration. Selections include noted duets like "When I Fall in Love," sung by Benson and Idina Menzel, "Too Young," featuring a duet between Benson and Judith Hill, and "Smile," featuring Till Bronner on trumpet. Benson delivers an emotional interpretation of Cole's "Unforgettable" with a laid back bossa nova groove flavored with softened guitar riffs over a symphony of strings with an accent of a soaring horn feature performed by Grammy Award-winning jazz trumpeter Wynton Marsalis. Benson owns this particular interpretation of the Cole classic as he shifts gears at midpoint from laid back to an infectious up-tempo bossa nova groove, complete with solid scatting, resulting in the eloquent creation of a hip, contemporary version of a timeless classic recording.

"Walkin My Baby Back Home" is a bouncy, free-spirited recording with solid horns and rhythm section backing Benson's pure vocal arrangements. In "Nature Boy," jazz meets classical music in this heartfelt ballad, where Benson shows his versatility in vocalizing jazz with a classical twist. Benson adds a bit of comedic input in his vocals on "Straighten Up and Fly Right," while delivering a funky, jazz performance running guitar melodies in the pocket. Benson inputs his mastery of the art of scatting, matching the melodic runs on his guitar in an up-tempo groovy rendition of "Just One of Those Things."

Benson shared this about the experience of recording this particular project. "I felt every moment of it. You can't put together a record like this without putting your heart into it. I got that from Nat King Cole. He put his heart into everything he did."

Inspiration reflects Benson's inner awakening as an artist, humanitarian and individual of intellect along with his inner musical evolution from childhood to present. Throughout the CD, he embraces and redefines Cole's catalog through classic jazz arrangements that are respectable and innovative in terms of modern musical standards while fusing in his heartfelt interpretations of the music making the project biographical in terms of the depth of the insight into the music.

In the middle of preparing for his new recording, Benson made a special appearance at an all star concert celebrating jazz as a global genre of music. Benson appeared as special guest where he took time to speak on the artistic consciousness and impact of jazz in America and the world. Just as he found inspiration in the music of Cole, Benson discovered that his own original catalog endures to awaken the spark of jazz artistry in youth talent of today.

While he shared personal anecdotes on stage, Benson was surrounded by top musicians including jazz great, Papa John DeFrancesco, and other top players in position on stage to perform. Benson spoke on how he as a teen artist was invigorated by the music of Nat King Cole as well as humbled by the opportunity to be mentored by John Coltrane and Wes Montgomery. "We are here to celebrate jazz and instill the spirit of jazz within the youth artists of today." said Benson. There beside Benson stood a teen female jazz guitarist by the name of Giavanna Foster, strapped with a vintage L-5 ready on deck. When Benson brought her up to the microphone, she expressed that she was dedicating the next song to honor a jazz legend whose music touched her spirit heartening her to discover the beauty of jazz guitar at the age of six. The crowd and Benson discovered in that moment that it was Benson himself whose music fed her inspiration as she performed, on lead guitar, a jazz tune by the name of "Sugar," a track Benson recorded early in his career with jazz greats, the legendary saxophonist Stanley Turrentine = 10944}}, bassist Ron Carter, drummer Billy Kaye and trumpeter Freddie Hubbard.

So, the inner spark of inspiration continues to be a powerful guide in the human experience especially attributed to the music of Jazz Ambassadors like Benson. With the Cole tribute project, he shares his truth as a man on a thoughtful quest to carry jazz forward as he reaches back in time to re-interpret the meaningful music that emotionally motivated him to sing and play.

Inspiration is a legacy project of a legacy artist who lives for the joy to ignite the light of creativity in the arts within people around the world through the sound frequency of jazz; and to think it all started with a ukulele, a microphone, knock knees, and the first day Little Georgie Benson sang in studio..."Mona Lisa."

Photo Credit
Greg Allen

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