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George Benson: Inspiration: A Tribute To Nat King Cole

Bruce Lindsay By

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Million-selling, hugely popular and readily recognisable jazz artists are a bit thin on the ground these days. So when one such giant records a tribute to another it's something of an event. George Benson's Inspiration: A Tribute To Nat King Cole certainly falls into that category: an album of songs from one of the biggest stars of the twentieth century, performed with due respect by one of the biggest names in the contemporary jazz scene.

The album's opener, "Mona Lisa," is credited to "Little Georgie Benson" and features the 8-year-old future star on vocals and ukulele—an indication of how early in his life Benson came to Cole's work. It has charm, but thankfully Big Georgie Benson is a far more consummate performer. The rest of Inspiration: A Tribute To Nat King Cole is as stylish and sophisticated as a tribute to Cole should be.

The Henry Mancini Institute Orchestra, under the direction of arranger Randy Waldman, perfectly captures the atmosphere of Cole's own recordings—powerful and driving on "Just One Of Those Things," relaxed and swinging on "Route 66," coolly romantic on "Unforgettable." The guest performers are well-chosen and enhance each tune on which they appear. Wynton Marsalis' trumpet on "Unforgettable" is positive and uplifting, Till Bronner's brief appearance on "Smile" is warm yet melancholy.

Idina Menzel duets with Benson on "When I Fall In Love" and makes her impact from the first note. Her voice is crystal clear—a hint of Barbra Streisand comes through in the final few lines—her commitment to the performance is total. Judith Hill's voice is more soulful than Menzel's and her performance is equally impressive. On "Too Young" she erases any thoughts that Benson, around 40 years older than Hill, isn't really too young at all.

Benson sounds like he's having a great time—and such enthusiasm is infectious. He makes sparing use of his trademark guitar scatting, so when it does appear, on "Just One Of Those Things" for example, it sounds fresh and fun. His guitar solos are fluid, nuanced and understated. Vocally, he's a delight. He's a fine exponent of Cole's relaxed, seemingly effortless, vocal style but never makes the mistake of attempting an impression of Cole's voice.

There are times when Benson's sound does come very close to Cole's—"Walkin' My Baby" comes very close indeed. There are also times where he's recognisably Benson, while some of his phrasing on "Unforgettable" is reminiscent of Johnny Mathis. More importantly, whoever he may sound like, he's consistently excellent. Inspiration: A Tribute To Nat King Cole is actually a superb tribute to Cole and Benson.

Track Listing: Mona Lisa; Just One Of Those Things; Unforgettable; Walkin' My Baby; When I Fall In Love; Route 66; Nature Boy; Ballerina; Smile; Straighten Up And Fly Right; Too Young; I'm Gonna Sit Right Down And Write Myself A Letter; Mona Lisa.

Personnel: George Benson: vocals, guitar, ukulele (1); Randy Waldman: conductor; The Henry Mancini Institute Orchestra; Idina Menzel: vocals (5); Judith Hill: vocals (11); Wynton Marsalis: trumpet (3); Till Brönner: trumpet (9).

Title: Inspiration: A Tribute To Nat King Cole | Year Released: 2013 | Record Label: Concord Records

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