George Benson The Other Side of Abbey Road
I have to admit I have never been a huge fan of George Benson. I respect the man because he is an amazing guitarist with an extraordinary original technique. Yet his chosen sound and genre limits what could be some blazing work. So why what's so special about this album? Though The Other Side Abbey Road is a mellow disc that alludes to his famous '70s work, it is a very unique one that deserves more press than it has gotten in comparison to the rest of his catalogue.
For many reasons obvious and otherwise, this record is one on the most interesting parlays into pop music by a jazz artist. The fact that Benson pays homage not only to the Beatles, but to their swan song Abbey Road in specific, makes for an interesting experiment that not many jazz players could have pulled off as smoothlypardon the pun. This record reveals that Benson was at one time a much more adventurous player. Moreover, it redeems a lot of his overproduced latter-day jazz/pop records.
Using a running sequence that differs greatly from the Beatles product, the record starts out with one of the last tracks on Abbey Road, "Golden Slumbers," which sets the laid-back jam groove of the album. From here the tracks occupy a short running time, falling into each other like the two medleys George Martin and Paul McCartney set up on side two of Abbey Road.
But Benson's song choices from the original record are unusual and interesting. Oddly enough, he does a version of Lennon's heavy rocker "Come Together," and his choice of Lennon's "I Want You (She's So Heavy)" is mind-bogglingyet it's a killer jam. Along with Freddie Hubbard, Herbert Laws, and Sonny Fortune, Benson kicks it back and lets it groove with a lot of room to let the players do their thing.
Benson's smooth take on Wes Montgomery begins to take flight on "You Never Give Me Your Money." Though it has the prodding of Creed Taylor's latter day work, Taylor manages to build a near-Phil Spectoresque Wall of Sound driven by the rock percussion of Idris Muhammand that puts dear old Ringo to shame. But Benson's smooth rips are the star of the album. Though some tracks come off a bit cheesy in retrospect, arrangements such as the funky reading of "Come Together and "I Want You make up for it. Benson's notes flow like silk and bring a delicate yet embracing feel to the task at hand, as they would do years later when he wasn't recording records as interesting as this one. The phrasing of his playing is almost vocal in its style.
Equally apparent on these tracks is his use of the musicians around him. Here Benson gives Fortune plenty room to open up. Aside from the pop environment, the cache of (more than twenty) players is solid throughout. As well, Don Sebesky's arrangements allow the Martin's baroque parts to come into a jazz setting, while building a big band eruption where needed.
Aside from Sebesky's arrangements, the two things that really make this record work are Benson's versatility as a player and Lennon and McCartney's genius as pop composers. The Other Side of Abbey Road also features a lot of Benson's exquisite vocals, which were not heard again until he signed to Warner Brothers in the mid-'70s. Unlike many tribute records, especially those related to the Beatles, this one packs a punch. Not only is it a delight for Benson fans, but also for fans of the Beatles and guitar jazz alike.
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