In the ten years since George Benson's name first appeared on an album in the capacity of combo leader, the guitar has swept past the piano to become the world's most-played, most-bought instrument. The number of accomplished plectrum artists has multiplied as impressively as might be expected, yet Benson has not needed to concern himself about competition. Ten years ago I wrote, in the Encyclopedia of Jazz in the '60s, that “he could well be one of the genuine new stars of the decade."
Good King Bad is the latest in a series of albums to help bear out that prediction, a product of the auspicious collaboration with producer Creed Taylor that began in 1 968. It also represents a new teaming, with a writer/conductor whose career should gain considerable momentum on the basis of his work here.
Listening to these sides, I was reminded of three events that took place late in 1 975. The first was in Chicago, where George and I had met, along with some 1 6 other friends of John Hammond, to pay tribute to him in the form of a TV special. (The career on records of George Benson, like those of a score of others, had been launched by Hammond in the mid-1 960s.) On that night George and Benny Goodman meshed in one of the most exciting spontaneous collaborations in modern musical history.
The second event took place in Los Angeles, when Benson was a participant in the first concert sponsored by the World Jazz Association. Playing pnder more controlled conditions, with Bob James conducting, he revealed the other, more pop-oriented side of his multifaceted personality.
The third occasion seemed to me at the time to be quite unrelated. At the Five Spot in New York, I heard a 1 2 piece band, directed from the keyboard by David Matthews, playing a set composed mostly of his original works. This first hearing of Matthews made a deep impression, particularly in view of the relatively limited instrumentation with which he was working. Matthews told me that night that he had just signed to work for CTI Records as a producer and composer/conductor.
“Not knowing much about Dave Matthews,"
Benson later told me, “and having heard that he had been writing for James Brown, I was a little uncertain about what might happen. I soon found out, of course, that he has a wealth of ideas that he wouldn't have a chance to express in Brown's band. He is a very knowledgeable writer and his music is full of rich colors. I'm sure he is going to have a great career."
The personnel assembled to work with George Benson under Matthews' guidance includes several important individual talents. Dave Sanborn, heard playing alto on Theme from Good King Bad, rose to prominence after working for several pop stars (Stevie Wonder, Cat Stevens, Paul Simon) and a long stint with the Butterfield Blues Band. He is clearly headed for stardom in his own right.
Bobby Lyle is, as George commented, “a surprisingly excellent player—he came out of Sly's band, and you might not expect, thinking about his background, that he would be so proficient in a setting like ours. You might say the same thing about the drummer, Andy Newmark, whose background is similar; but these are cats who aspire to play serious things, to get involved with other music than what they have been playing. More and more musicians of this kind are coming to the foreground."
More familiar are such names as Joe Farrell and David Friedman. Farrell and Benson play the opening section of ihe theme on Siberian Workout, a Matthews original, with Farrell taking over alone for the bridge. His use of the phaser and overdubbing of two flute parts is an effective ploy here. Shell Of A Man is strengthened by the contribution of Friedman, whose gentle, legato solo is characteristic of his sensitivity and discretion.
Among the other tracks, I was particularly taken with One Rock Don't Make No Boulder. This minor theme has an A-A-B-B form, with the soloists playing different changes based on the first four bars of the tune, and with a piano vamp following the interlude. George Benson is particularly plaintive and emotionally affecting. Em, composed by Phil Naman-worth, fuses a rhythm arrangement by bassist Gary King and flute overdub writing by Matthews. What sounds like a violin in the opening statement, by the way, is in fact a synthesizer, demonstrating what pretty sounds can be extracted from this source when gimmicky effects are not attempted.
Cast Your Fate to the Wind has undergone many facelifts since Vince Guaraldi wrote it in 1 960. Matthews points out that there is just a hint of reggae rhythm in the bass and guitar work.
Working with Benson was an experience without precedent for Matthews. “George has a phenomenal technique," he observed after the sessions, “yet he never abuses it by showing off. He also has a sort of trilling effect he gets that enables him at certain moments to sound like an old time piano player— almost like an Erroll Garner of the guitar. But basically, he can do anything he wants to, which is what makes him such a joy io work with."
As for Benson, he characterizes the music here as “sophisticated rhythm and blues" and is pleased that he made the all-important transition from imitator (his inspirations were Hank Garland and Charlie Christian) to imitated.
“I recognized who the masters were, then tried to utilize their ideas applied to my own way of thinking. Nowadays I run into young musicians who seem to have borrowed a few things from me. That's normal; we all have to turn to somebody in the beginning to add to our knowledge.
“As for me, I want the freedom to express myself along with the kind of discipline someone like Dave can provide. I just want room to dance on my instrument."
One might add that never has the guitar produced a more graceful and elegant dancer.
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