Has George Benson Sold Out To The Bright Lights And "Billboard" Charts?
By David McElfresh
EVERY ART FORM has someone who, though once a figurehead, has become as frustrating as he was once fulfilling. J.D. Salinger refuses to publish his current writing until he dies. Nicolas "Rebel Without A Cause" Roeg turns out confusing trash horribly inferior to his earlier films. And musician supreme George Benson now caters to a jazz-lite crowd with albums of pop music, like his new Standing Together, that come nowhere near his previous jazz standards. Listening to the old stuff, even fans of the current Benson material must concede that the depth and grittiness are gone.
The guitarist is outspoken about his radical change in career direction. "It's crazy to sit on something I did 25 years ago," Benson said in a recent interview. "If I can't bring something new to the stage, forget it."
Benson was a monster figure in the '60s and '70s hardcore jazz scene; and as evidenced by sporadic, full-strength jazz recordings like 1989's Tenderly and 1990's Big Boss Band, he still remains one of the most soulful and creative jazz guitarists alive. That is, when he wants to be--which unfortunately, is none too frequently these days. Not all of Benson's earlier flash and finesse has gone into hibernation, though. Standing Together teasingly references his lifelong love of mentor Wes Montgomery's octave playing, and the bluesy chickenshack guitar ranting from his organ trio days--both used to far better effect on his first dozen years' worth of albums.
Most ingratiating is the new album's memorable "Poquito Spanish, Poquito Funk": "We can do that Latino thing, too, you know," he says in the intro. Yeah, he can, but if you want to hear him really have at it, check out 1971's White Rabbit, where his ultra-Latin versions of everything from Jefferson Airplane's title cut to Brazilian composer Heitor Villa-Lobos' "Little Train" make this new cut, by comparison, feel about as authentic as a Taco Bell burrito.
Ironically, Benson at an earlier stage purposely downplayed the impressive vocal abilities that now take center stage: 1969's The Other Side Of Abbey Road lists Benson only as the guitarist, for some reason not listing him as the smooth, Stevie Wonder-influenced singer on "Oh! Darling" and "Here Comes The Sun." Since Breezin', though, album credits have been more inclined to stick Benson's warbling credits ahead of his guitar work. Recent converts to Benson's radio-friendly music are no doubt surprised to find him, in live performance, equally as handy with the axe he wears around his neck.
Post-Breezin' fans who encounter Benson's early albums with organist Jack McDuff, or his catalog of mostly solid '70s music on the CTI label, are walloped with a phase in Benson's career that few jazz guitarists before or since have equaled. This writer once walked out of a mid-'70s Benson concert in Kansas City because the complexity of his soloing was as draining as a Thomas Pynchon novel, and his ever-thickening improvisations on Miles Davis' "So What" seemed likely to send blood streaming out of my ears if I didn't find the door. It's not often we're blessed with a musician that intense.
So how can Benson, knowing he's hot-shit, top-drawer jazz guitar material, intentionally dilute his chops in favor of the tepid fare on Standing Together? More likely than the bucks, it was probably the bright lights that long ago won him over. Full houses of young, hormonal-driven lovers replaced small clubs of mostly male jazz dweebs. The end of "This Masquerade" received standing ovations, the likes of which never came after playing a jazz standard. And a handful of stars and bullets accompanied the entrance of his name on the Billboard charts.
An enticing new world for an underpaid, underappreciated jazzman, no question. The ultra-talented Benson chose his fork in the road, turning the other cheek to us whiny jazzophiles. But the art world, as opposed to the entertainment one, is glad that author Joyce Carol Oates hasn't decided to write like Danielle Steele just because she'd like a larger audience; or that Peter Greenaway doesn't stoop to directing Scream 3 in search of name recognition from the Entertainment Tonight crowd. Zen masters who've figured out the sound of one hand clapping might want to help us out with another koan: What's the point of being blessed with exceptional talent if it's purposely laid aside?
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