[JPL] Guitarist George Benson inspires jazz lovers, artists

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Sat Sep 15 06:50:16 EDT 2007


Guitarist George Benson inspires jazz lovers, artists
Larry Rodgers
The Arizona Republic
Sept. 15, 2007 12:00 AM

Master jazz guitarist George Benson came breezing into the Valley as a
permanent resident three years ago, and he has endeared himself to the local
music community.

Although Benson, who was catapulted to fame with his 1976 crossover album,
Breezin', still plays concerts around the world, he's become a familiar face
at one Phoenix jazz club and an inspiration to fellow players here.

He won two Grammys this year for Givin' It Up, an album recorded with
vocalist Al Jarreau, but he hasn't let awards and millions in album sales go
to his head, according to those close to him.

He and Jarreau will spotlight the album, which includes performances by
ex-Beatle Paul McCartney, R&B songstress Jill Scott and jazz greats Herbie
Hancock and Patti Austin, in concert tonight in Phoenix.

When Benson isn't on tour, he enjoys dropping in to a restaurant-lounge that
is a favorite of jazz lovers and the site of frequent jam sessions.

"Bobby C's is a fabulous club," Benson says. "I can't play clubs anymore -
nobody can afford us for a club - but when I stop by, they're my friends,
and they treat me like a king . . . . I bump into all my jazz fans and jazz
players down there."

Benson, who lives in Paradise Valley with his wife, Johnnie, and their seven
sons, doesn't always take the stage at Bobby C's - he's sometimes there just
for the club's Sunday jazz brunch.

But when he does lay down his smooth guitar stylings on the club's stage, he
enthralls the musicians and fans lucky enough to be there on the right
Sunday afternoon.

"After you go and hear him, you just want to practice and get better," says
Valley jazz vocalist Blaise Lantana, who also is music director at KJZZ-FM
(91.5). "Every musician that's around him, he brings up just by his talent
being in the room, being in town."

Benson's ability to make even the most challenging riffs look effortless
impresses Joy Clayton, who operates Bobby C's with her husband, Robert.

"It's the ease with which he plays. He stands there, and he's certainly into
his music, but it's such a beautiful flow," Joy Clayton says.

The club operator, who is friends with Benson and Jarreau, is thrilled the
two recorded an album after sharing stages and doing occasional duets for
three decades.

"They have a wonderful synergism," Clayton says, and the critics have agreed
about Givin' It Up, which finds the pair interpreting a wide range of
material, from Breezin' (to which Jarreau added lyrics) to Billie Holiday's
God Bless the Child to Paul Young's Every Time You Go Away.

Asked why it took so long to get into the studio together, Benson replies,
"This is a good time for us to do it because . . . we know what it is to be
(a musician) before success and after success, before a lot of record sales
and after a lot of record sales. We know who is responding to what and why
we are where we are, so it makes a difference."

The Pittsburgh-born Benson got his start playing straight-ahead instrumental
jazz with organist Jack McDuff. By the mid-'60s, he was appearing on record
with legendary trumpeter Miles Davis.

"That early stuff was anything but smooth," says Aaron Cohen, associate
editor of Down Beat magazine. "It was played with a lot of skill, but at the
same time it was played with a lot of grit, a lot of heart and a lot of risk
(and) funkiness." 

As the '70s neared, Benson started showing an even more adventurous streak,
recording a jazzy tribute to the Beatles' Abbey Road album and a version of
Jefferson Airplane's psychedelic hit White Rabbit.

He and Jarreau ended up at the same record label in the mid-'70s, with
Benson finding chart success a little faster. This Masquerade, the lone
vocal track from the Breezin' album, was the first single ever to top
Billboard magazine's pop, jazz and R&B charts.

Breezin' had a decidedly contemporary sound, and it became the introduction
to jazz for many young listeners who up to that point had favored rock or

Milwaukee native Jarreau found top-10 success in 1981 with the single We're
in This Love Together. Known for versatile vocals that range from scat to
smooth pop to imitations of guitar, bass and drums, Jarreau is the only
vocalist to win Grammys in pop, jazz and R&B.

"It's been incredible for both of us," Benson says as he reflects on the
pair's careers. "We're both glad for each other's success. Anytime we see
each other, we do the 'Yo!' We have a lot of fun with each other."

Those good times extended into the recording of Givin' It Up, which was
released last fall.

"We got ahold of some very great people," says Benson, 64.

Having keyboardist Hancock onboard "gave us the class and the punch that we
needed," the guitarist says. "I've never heard a bad record from Herbie

Benson adds that "Jill Scott is amazing. . . . I knew she would do something

After Scott sang God Bless the Child, Benson recalls, "I said, 'That's the
way Lady Day (Holiday) would have done it - real.' "

McCartney happened to be recording next door in Los Angeles to Benson and
Jarreau, and he stopped in one day.

"We've been friends because I've done a lot of his songs over the years on
my recordings," Benson says.

"They were playing back one of the songs (Sam Cooke's Bring It on Home to
Me), and I said, 'Paul, you know this song, don't you?'

"He said, 'Yes,' a definitive 'yes,' " Benson recalls with a laugh.

A few days later, McCartney returned and added his inimitable voice to the

Benson chuckles some more as he explains how Jarreau ended up singing on
Breezin', which had been an instrumental track for 30 years:

"He said, 'I'll have some vocals tomorrow.' I thought he was kidding. The
next day, he came in, and he had vocals. I said, 'I guess we're committed

"We did a rough version, and people liked the vibe of it. We went back later
to try and fix it, but the original one felt good. So we left it on the

Benson says that performing with friends such as Jarreau remains rewarding
decades after he could have retired due to his commercial success.

"We love our audience," Benson says.

"That gig, that night is the most important gig of my life. That's always
been my mentality, and I think that's the reason we're still out there after
all these years." 

Reach the reporter at larry.rodgers at arizonarepublic .com or (602) 444-8043.
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