A funny thing about George Benson is that he's this big millionaire legendary musician, but if you're at the Zinc Bar in New York, he'll show up and sit in, just like one of the regular guys.
—Steve Kirby, musician
George Benson is one of the most recognized figures in the jazz world.
He's an icon--not only for his work in straight ahead jazz, but smooth jazz, R&B, and pop. He's one of those rare people who's stayed true to himself but also has a sense of how to create music that has mass appeal, which means he's stayed on top of the business for five decades. (Even more amazing considering he also seems perpetually 32!)
Benson is a multiple threat musician. He's one of the cleanest, most phenomenal jazz guitar improvisers in the history of jazz, bar none.
When he was still a young musician, he caught the ear of the legendary guitarist Wes Montgomery, and got inspired to launch his solo career with the 1964 recording, The New Boss Guitar--a nod to Montgomery's Boss Guitar, released the previous year. A few short years later, he was on Miles Davis' Miles in the Sky, and he hasn't looked back.
Even early on, he wanted to sing too, and though some of his early producers resisted, he was determined. Breezin', released in 1976, was the first jazz record to go platinum, and it had a bunch of hits, including "This Masquerade" and "Give Me the Night." It won a Grammy.
A couple of years later he recorded the huge pop hit, "On Broadway," which won a Grammy too. He's a great singer. I saw him perform once with Bobby McFerrin, Jon Hendricks, and a couple of other luminaries, and he smoked those guys!
George Benson (supplied by Jazz Winnipeg Festival)
Benson actually has 10 Grammy Awards to his name, and the categories--vocal, instrumental, R&B, pop--say something about how accomplished Benson is, how broad a spectrum his work covers.
A funny thing about George Benson is that he's this big millionaire legendary musician, but if you're at the Zinc Bar in New York, he'll show up and sit in, just like one of the regular guys. That's like having the pope show up at your small town meeting!
Many times, I've been at the Northsea Festival, and Benson will just jump in at a jam session and start playing! He's the most phenomenal guitar player you ever want to witness, and he's as gracious as all get-out.
He's not slowing down. With something like 30 recordings as a leader, Benson continues to work. In 2011, he released Guitar Man, a studio recording using the "old style approach" of minimal rehearsal and arrangements, freeing up great musicians to improvise and explore together.
The next project in line is a Nat King Cole tribute album--no doubt it will be an out-of-the-park success too.
Benson uses a lot of theory and technique, but you only ever hear the music. No matter what he's performing, it's just so musical. As he puts it: "It's all music to me... I try to make it sound like it's natural, because to me it is. There are only two kinds of music, good and bad. There are a lot of things in between, but they're eventually going to fall on one side or the other of that equation."
George Benson is one of those guys who will be a phenomenal performer all the way until he can't get up to perform. Nature makes one of those every couple of hundred years.
In 2009, the National Endowment of the Arts named him a Jazz Master; that designation is exactly right. He's like Pavarotti or Mozart--and he's coming to Winnipeg. You absolutely must see him!
Steve Kirby is a jazz bassist and the Director of Jazz Studies at the University of Manitoba.
TD Winnipeg International Jazz Festival presents George Benson on Sunday, June 23, 7:30 pm at the Burton Cummings Theatre, 364 Smith.
This article appeared in the May-June issue of dig! magazine, Winnipeg's bi-monthly jazz periodical.