By MARIO TARRADELL Music Critic firstname.lastname@example.org
Ask George Benson whether he’s a guitarist or a vocalist first and he’ll simply answer, “Both.”
“I put so much time on each instrument,” he says by phone from Paradise Valley, Ariz.
Benson’s guitar playing is distinctive. He makes the six-string guitar sound fluid and soulfully jazzy. Like Carlos Santana, Mark Knopfler and Eric Clapton, Benson’s picking is instantly recognizable.
“I always try to play what I feel more than what I know,” he says. Then there’s his voice, a robust R&B timbre with the flexibility to scat one minute and croon the next.
“I’ve always loved singing,” he says. “That was my first love. I know audiences and I know how to get that interest. Translating to record has been difficult, but we’ve done it.”
And he’s done it many times. Classic George Benson albums include 1976′s Breezin’, 1978′s Weekend in L.A., 1980′s Give Me the Night, 1989′s Tenderly and 2006′s Givin’ It Up with Al Jarreau. Add Songs and Stories to the list.
The just-released CD includes his take on James Taylor’s “Don’t Let Me Be Lonely Tonight,” Zapp’s “Nuthin’ but a Party,” Tony Joe White’s “Rainy Night in Georgia” and a beautiful instrumental rendition of Christopher Cross’ “Sailing.” It also boasts fresh compositions from respected songwriters Rod Temperton (“Family Reunion”), Lamont Dozier (“Living in High Definition”) and Bill Withers (“A Telephone Call Away”).
Like the man who plays and sings them, the tracks on Songs and Stories are sophisticated, rhythmic and full of Benson’s warm, charming demeanor.
“I noticed that over the years my best and memorable songs are from great songwriters that understood what messages we wanted to bring across,” he says.
“It all starts with one great song, like ‘Family Reunion’ by Rod Temperton, who wrote ‘Give Me the Night’ for me. The stories, the messages in the songs are essential. We picked guys we thought would make a difference.”
Songs and Stories is similar to Benson’s 1970s and 1980s records in that it blends R&B, jazz and pop.
While he was already mixing the three genres, it was with the Quincy Jones- produced Give Me the Night album that Pittsburgh-born Benson, 66, realized the power of blending those styles. Night netted him three of his 10 Grammy Awards.
“Quincy raised an instrumental issue when we were making the Give Me the Night album,” Benson says. “He wanted to hit all those notes, and we did and we won Grammys. He wanted to make sure my records meant something in all those markets.”
Songs and Stories, Give Me the Night and many of the others are the work of a man who erases the space separating his voice and his guitar.
When talking about both instruments, Benson recalls the words of the late jazz organist Jimmy Smith.
“He said, ‘I took my organ into my garage and I stayed there for months at a time and then one day everything I could think of, I could play, and I knew it was time to come out of the garage.’ ”
Benson follows the same philosophy. Rehearsing is more like personalizing what he knows, bonding with his instrument.
“That is what has kept my playing so fluid for years,” he says.
“It all comes from the same source. When I’m playing, my guitar is my voice.”