[JPL] JAZZ REVIEW: Live: George Benson

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Tue Feb 19 09:04:38 EST 2008

Live: George Benson
By Don Heckman
Special to The Times

February 18, 2008

George Benson doesn't seem the likeliest candidate to deliver a Nat King
Cole tribute -- at least not one that emphasizes revived simulations of
Cole's classic hits. But there he was Friday at Walt Disney Concert Hall,
with a large string orchestra and his own band, strolling through one
familiar Cole selection after another.

At first, the differences were striking. Cole's voice was light and airy;
Benson's emphasized force and power. Cole's piano playing was -- for most of
his career -- an integral adjunct to his singing; Benson largely approached
the Cole songs without his guitar, as a solo vocalist.

Benson tried to set aside those differences in the first Cole number,
"Nature Boy," with a vocal lightness of tone and articulation that came very
close to an impression. But Benson is a musician at heart, and -- even in
his efforts to recall Cole's pronunciation and phrasing -- he still retained
the lift, the swing and the warmth that are central to his own creative

"Mona Lisa," "Stardust" and "Looking Back" followed, Benson gradually
setting aside the Cole mannerisms, reaching instead for his own, more
appropriately contemporized rendering, without losing touch with the Cole
ambience. Oddly enough, it was his ability to combine those two qualities
that kept the Cole reference alive -- far more than the thin and
unsupportive sound of the string orchestra. If the orchestral arrangements
were, as Benson suggested, the original charts, then the sound on the Cole
recordings was far superior to what was heard via the uncertain qualities of
amplification in Disney Hall.

Both the timbres and the energy picked up considerably during a set of tunes
associated with the Cole trio -- including a swinging "Route 66" and a wryly
humorous "Straighten Up and Fly Right" -- in which the orchestra took a bye
and Benson was accompanied by his own sextet.

It wasn't until Benson said farewell to the Cole portion of the evening and
dug into his own estimable collection of hits that both he and the capacity
audience finally came fully to life. There's no telling how often he has
sung and played numbers such as "This Masquerade," "Give Me the Night" and
"On Broadway." But Benson's roots as an improvising jazz artist continue to
generate new ideas and an irresistibly propulsive swing every time he
performs them.

Add to that his marvelous vocal exchange with guest singer Patti Austin on
"Moody's Mood for Love" and a spontaneous scat-sung blues, and the real
connection between Cole and Benson became clear -- a connection not based on
simulations and greatest hits but on the ability of two fine jazz artists to
successfully, and musically, reach out to a beyond-genre audience.
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