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Absolute Benson
George Benson
UNI/GRP
George Benson's new guitar oriented release Absolute Benson
Buying a George Benson album has always been somewhat of a risk, at best. For, although he is undoubtedly one of the great jazz guitarists on the planet, much of his work in the last 20 years has only served to downplay his instrumental prowess. The 1980's saw Benson presenting himself as a pop singer, leaving the guitar almost completely behind. Benson has concentrated more on guitar in the latter part of the 1990's, but most of his recordings have been of a commercial "smooth jazz" nature, that didn't really showcase his genius. All signs looked promising however, when Benson revealed he was employing, amongst others, jazz/funk drummer Steve Gadd, and bassist Christian McBride for his May 23rd release Absolute Benson. The short story is that Absolute Benson is the best recording the guitarist has made in over a decade. Benson, in perhaps a calculated move, has created an album that touches upon most of the varied styles of music the guitarist has played throughout his career. The CD features funk, latin, jazz, and instrumental pop music, all of which Benson has previously explored in almost four decades of music.
Absolute Benson opens with perhaps the album's strongest track, an inspired cover of Donny Hathaway's "The Ghetto". The band locks in a strong groove on a tune reminiscent of some of Benson's 70's funkier oriented recordings. As is the trend throughout Absolute Benson, George sings only a few lines on the tune, concentrating instead on his signature brand of high-energy guitar playing.
"El Barrio" follows, and is essentially a re-interpretation of "The Ghetto", interpreted with a quasi-latin feel. "El Barrio" has no melody to speak of... which is fine; the song is simply a means of giving the listener the opportunity to hear more of Benson's great guitar playing. The guitarist gives away the tune's secret at the end of the track when he quips "El Barrio.... ain't nothin' but the ghetto".
Several of the album's tracks have been geared for smooth jazz radio; both "Deeper than you Think" and "Medicine Man" are overtly tailored for the format. Despite this obvious aim at commercialism, Benson and the band play the lighter material with enthusiasm, and the tunes work in their own way.
The CD also contains the first straight-ahead jazz playing Benson has recorded on his own albums in quite some time. Joe Sample's waltz "One on One" provides a nice framework to hear Benson and co. playing "over changes". The inclusion of several synth tracks on the tune was totally unneccessary, however, and could have been omitted.
As has been the case throughout his career, Benson looks to outside sources for the material on Absolute Benson. Keyboardist Joe Sample gets a songwriting credit on four of the nine tracks. The album also includes a somewhat unlikely cover of Stevie Wonder's ballad "Lately", interpreted in a fully instrumental setting. Ray Charles' blues "Come Back Baby" is given an excellent reading here, featuring Benson on both guitar and vocals.
If you're a person who has been humming-and-hawing over purchasing any of the recent George Benson releases, picking up a copy of Absolute Benson would be a good bet. At 57 years of age, Benson still sounds youthful, fresh, and enthusiastic throughout, and although it doesn't have a distinct focus, Absolute Benson is sure to contain some music you'll love.

Listen to sound samples, or buy Absolute Benson at CDnow

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