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George Benson on working with Al Jarreau, why ‘Breezin’’ is his most memorable song

George Benson sees a bright future for jazz’s next generation and the place of his chosen instrument in it. “There’s a lot of rhythm in the world today, a lot of danceable music. And the guitar is a powerful instrument, not a background instrument like it was 70 years ago,” he says. Benson comes to the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts on Wednesday for a concert with Kenny G.
George Benson sees a bright future for jazz’s next generation and the place of his chosen instrument in it. “There’s a lot of rhythm in the world today, a lot of danceable music. And the guitar is a powerful instrument, not a background instrument like it was 70 years ago,” he says. Benson comes to the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts on Wednesday for a concert with Kenny G.

George Benson has at least one distant but vivid recollection of Kansas City.

“I haven’t been there in a long time,” he recently told The Star. “The last thing I remember is a show in Kansas City that was part of a festival, and I ran into one of my longtime favorite great musicians, Bobby Bland.

“He invited me onto his bus and we had a great conversation, me and his whole band. We talked about everything. It was great to just be a part of his environment and let some of that incredible magic he had rub off on me.”

Benson, who performs Wednesday with Kenny G at the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts, has spent much of his career in the presence of fellow legends. The jazz guitarist has a long history of collaborations, from Chick Corea, Freddie Hubbard and Bob James to t jazz vocalist Al Jarreau, who died in February.

In 2006, Benson and Jarreau released “Givin’ It Up,” a collection of covers and standards that featured guest vocals from Patti Austin, Jill Scott and Paul McCartney. The album won two Grammys and precipitated a successful tour.

“We kind of always knew that we’d work together one day,” he said, “but time went by so fast and we were getting up there in age and we said, ‘If we’re going to do this we should do it now.’ That was a great experience, and the touring experience made us even better friends.”

Benson said he quickly learned something about recording with Jarreau.

“(Jarreau) was a lot like myself in one sense,” he said. “You could never predict what he was going to do next. Al was one of those cats. I figured out that staying out of his way was best. You let him shine, and when I found something I could grab onto, I’d jump on it and good things came out of it.”

Benson also spent some time collaborating with the great Hammond B-3 player Jimmy Smith before Smith’s death in 2005.

“He sparked my career when I was still a kid,” Benson said. “I was 15 when I started listening to his records. They were spectacular. From the time I heard it back then till the time he died, he was one of the greatest musicians I’d ever heard.

“He died out here where I live, in the Phoenix area, and before he died I had the chance to hang out with him and relish all those great moments and do some jam sessions here that I really wish we had recorded.”

Smith was one of several music legends who have inspired Benson, and not all were jazz musicians.

“When I came up, the superstars were still alive: Wes Montgomery, Grant Green, Tal Farlow, Kenny Burrell — all these bad cats, all people we looked up to. That’s how we learned to play: checking them out first, seeing what they had new.

“And we saw country players, like Hank Garland, and I became very good friends with Chet Atkins, who was completely different from everyone else. But he passed out lessons and we became good friends and he endorsed my style of playing, which was gigantic for me because I had no connections with the country world.”

Benson was launched into mainstream popularity in 1976, when he released “Breezin’,” his debut on Warner Bros.

It was Benson’s most commercially successful record. It included the title track, an instrumental that has become a smooth-jazz standard, and the vocal track “This Masquerade,” which became a Top 10 pop and R&B hit. The album was panned critically, but it went triple platinum and made Benson an international star.

Asked about the place for smooth jazz in the larger jazz world, Benson said: “The smooth-jazz instrumentals have kept us in touch with the jazz world in a different kind of way because it was new music, not really accepted by the traditional jazz world and jazz enthusiasts. But it kept the word ‘jazz’ alive and created a lot of great new players, too.”

Asked to list a few of his more memorable recordings, Benson named “Breezin’ ” first.

“It gave me a whole other career I hadn’t banked on,” he said. “And the song ‘Breezin’ ’ was one of the big instrumentals of its time.

“After that, ‘Weekend in L.A.’ with ‘On Broadway’ live, where all my friends and Hollywood stars showed up and egged me on. That was incredible. And I can’t forget Quincy Jones and ‘Give Me the Night.’ That song — it’s like it just came out. People love it all over the world.

“Those records are the powerhouses of my career, but there are others: the album ‘In Your Eyes’ and the album ‘20/20,’ which featured ‘Nothing’s Gonna Change My Love for You.’ I didn’t have the hit with that, but I recorded it first, and it came back to me and is one of the biggest songs in my repertoire.”

Benson acknowledged that the jazz and blues worlds are in the same place: trying to produce a new generation of stars, like Bland and himself, and cultivate younger audiences. He likes the chances and the role the guitar will play in any campaign.

“That’s a challenge,” he said. “But you’ve got to remember that a lot of the people who supported and loved traditional jazz, they’re all much older and a lot of them are gone. So the new generation has to relate to the world as it is today. There’s a lot of rhythm in the world today, a lot of danceable music. And the guitar is a powerful instrument, not a background instrument like it was 70 years ago. So guys are getting the chance to express their most inner feelings and their best techniques.”

Timothy Finn: 816-234-4781, @phinnagain

Wednesday

George Benson and Kenny G perform Wednesday in the Muriel Kauffman Theatre at the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts. Show time is 7:30 p.m. Tickets are $85.50 to $135.50. kauffmancenter.org

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