Friday, March 24, 2006

Night Watchman

By Cory Johnson


IT'S ABOUT 2 A.M. IN MANHATTAN, and George Benson sits alone at the end of the bar. The Zinc Bar, as this joint is called, is so tiny that the whole room rings every time the drummer hits the ride cymbal. It's too small for a piano, which is all good by Benson. He knows this is the place to check out the aspiring young lions of jazz guitar, and he' here, in part, to mark his territory.

Thirty years since he was the young lion and first made the New York scene, Benson is still on hand. And some 30 years after his first solo release (New Boss Guitar), Benson is coming out with a new album on a new label. He has jumped ship to GRP after two decades with Warner Bros. to record the funky That's Right. It's a new groove for Benson, laden with funky beats and simple vamps, and that trademark guitar sailing over them. Much of it was inspired by Benson's late-night forays into Manhattan, and tonight he's here in the bowels of the jazz world to make sure that new sound is right on. "I get out there and hear new ideas," he says, "then I go home and explore it."

Benson is a smooth but odd-looking man, of a certain age that lingers between young and old. He's no longer the nervous Pittsburgh kid with the toothy grin who greeted the jazz world in the early '60s as the featured performer with organist Jack McDuff. But he's still young enough to comfortably hang with this crowd of sexy brunettes in designer dresses, sideburned dudes in black turtlenecks and Italian leather jackets (smartly following the chicks) and hiphoppers "keepin' it real." Benson, 56, is no relic, though he'll occasionally let loose a knowing laugh or say old-man things like, "New York is the greatest city in the history of mankind, but it is also the most volatile, and it is the worst in many things. And all the innovation, everything that is great, comes to New York sooner or later."

Benson is a regular in the New York club scene, always with his ear to the ground. "I go to where the people are," he says. "I go to the jazz clubs, because they got the innovators, So I'm up on all that's new and fresh, you know, and I see all the young guys-master young musicians, you know? How about Russell Malone? You gonna love this kid! He came here and blew New York apart! And there's several other guitar-playing wizards. 'Mere's a kid from Philadelphia, his name is Jimmy Bruno -- maaaannn! And there's a kid from my hometown, an Italian fellow, his name is Ron Affif -- yeeeeaaahh, he's a bad dude, man."

The new guys, of course, are all adept at a sound that is a product of Benson's uniquely odd musical upbringing. In his native Pittsburgh, Benson played the ukulele in nightclubs as a child, then sang doo-wop as a teen. One night he stumbled into a night club to see a guitar player named Wes Montgomery and was blown away. "I heard guitar like I never heard it before," he says. "So I went up to him, introduced myself and asked if he'd teach me something. You know what he said, man? He said, 'Man, I'm too busy trying to learn something myself.' " But as the years went on, Montgomery would check up on Benson to see what the younger guitarist had learned.

Benson eventually landed the gig with McDuff and his funky soul-jazz group. "He fired me the first night, man," says Benson. "Said he didn't think I could make it with the band. But he told me I could stay with the group until they got to New York, and he never did send me home." After being "discovered" by legendary Columbia/CBS A&R man John Hammond, Benson recorded It's Uptown (1965) and Cookbook (1966), two outstanding soul-jazz albums. But in 1971, he left Columbia to join producer Creed Taylor and his label CTI. Taylor had enjoyed a few pop-jazz hits with Montgomery and saw Benson as a logical successor. Benson recorded a pile of easy-listening jazz albums with CTI, including White Rabbit (1972) and Body Talk (1973)

After almost a decade of such offerings, Benson signed with Warner Bros. in 1976 and was matched up with A&R man Tommy LiPuma. LiPuma suggested that Benson revive his singing career and inserted just one vocal track on his Warner debut. The track was "This Masquerade," and the record Breezin' became the first platinum album in jazz history, selling more than six million copies, He followed with a string of platinum-sellers, including Weekend In LA. featuring "On Broadway" and "Give Me 'Me Night" (produced by Quincy Jones).

But the greater Benson's pop success, the more jazz fans lamented his absence from the scene. That debate over straightahead jazz versus pop has come to define Benson's career, and he still bristles at the criticism. "For me, man, music is fun," says Benson. "Cats saying that we owe something to a certain style of music-when did we ever sign a contract to be loyal to a certain kind of music? I'm just a musician playing whatever is available to play, and having great time doing it."

Pop music to Benson has always been means to an end. "If I'm in a house and they got 10 people in there and I know that one guy is a jazz fan, I won't play for that one guy," says Benson, "It's futile and it just makes enemies. It doesn't really pan out. Since I can do both, I have a choice. And my choice is to please the most people and still be happy doin' it. I'm not gonna go out of my way. But if it's something that I do well and it's gonna please nine people out of 10, that's my choice.

"The people, the fans, they're the ones who say who's great and who isn't When they sell 250 million tickets to a movie, it becomes significant and the whole movie industry will note that as a moment in time to be remembered. There's something to be said about what people choose. They're the ones who make us successful or not."

Benson has ventured into the straightahead world with some nice results: Dexter Gordon's Gotham City (1981), organist Jimmy Smith's Off The Top (1985) and Big Boss Band (1991) with the Count Bases Orchestra. But solid as these records are, none has gained the audience of Benson's pop offerings, and nothing angers him more.

"I'm glad I do those things," says Benson. "But, oh man, when I talk to a fan who hasn't heard Tenderly, the album I did with McCoy Tyner-that's the reason why I don't do those things. They sit on the shelf where they gather dust, when they should be in people's houses in their record collections. I can play with McCoy any time of the week, because he's one of my best friends and one of the greatest musicians that has ever lived, as far as I'm concerned; definitely the greatest jazz pianist that is alive today. But for us to make a record and have it sit on the shelf is a crime, you know?"

So for his last record on Warner Bros., Love Remembers (1993), Benson returned to the pop sound that has brought him so much success. "You have to let pop tunes be what they are," he says. "It's amazing to me that the biggest record Louis Armstrong ever had happened when he was 60 years old-'Hello Dolly.' So simple, and just right on the money. Just let it hang out and be what it is."

BENSON SPENDS COUNTLESS HOURS IN HIS BASEMENT STUDIO in Englewood Cliffs, N.J., just across the George Washington Bridge from Manhattan, practicing and incorporating all that he has learned from his visits into the city, ironically studying young guys who grew up studying him. But he's getting used to young cats mimicking his sound, "Sometimes my wife hears a song on the radio and says, 'I don't remember you recording that song,'" notes Benson. "And I say, Us not me.' I get mad at her because she can't identify me. But every guitar player is me."

He's incorporated some of those new ideas on That's Right, which reunites Benson with LiPuma, now president of GRP. 'Me record is a significant departure from Benson's carefully crafted and heavily produced pop efforts. For That's Right, LiPuma brought Benson to Prince's Paisley Park Studios in Minneapolis, where they teamed up with Ricky Peterson. (An accomplished keyboard player and a skilled composer, Peterson co-wrote Prince's hit "The Most Beautiful Girl In The World.") Peterson and LiPuma put together a funky combo, and with a limited tune list, they laid down a groove and threw together an album. 'Tommy knows that I work better under those circumstances," says Benson. "He knows that I don't like all that polishing up and redoing and all that. This is more exciting."

Though its not the acid-jazz project Benson was rumored to be working on, That's Right is filled with derived grooves, like the Benson-penned "Marvin Said," a smooth vamp that takes off on Marvin Gaye's "VVhat's Goin' On," and "P Park," a tune based on a Prince lick. "There are a lot of things that can make a song a hit," says Benson. "It could be a hook anywhere in the song, like, 'Whoop, there it is.' Heh, heh, Lyrical hooks are the best, but it don't have to be a lyrical hook. It can be a bass line, too."

The new record was recorded live in the studio. "I think this one digs in a little more than some other things I've done," says Benson. "It's a little more improvisational, more off-the-cuff. It's simpler, the way we used to make records years ago. We went in with an idea, just sketches of a song or songs,

There are some classic Benson-style ballads, but for most of That's Right, the groove is the thing. "I think whenever you're recording, you try to create a mood. This one succeeded more so than a lot of things we've done over the last few years. That's more jazzy to do it this way. There's just some fun things on his album, real simple bass, like those CTI things we used to do. It's very simple. It's more or less for energy. We wanted to relate to the raw and just react, more than anything else, to the music."

Which is exactly what gets Benson into his Mercedes and down to the New York jazz scene. As light and airy as his music is, he wants to keep on his toes and always dig the latest sounds. To Benson, that's the secret to his success. "I think people have their own way of defining what success is," he says. "To me, success is communicating."


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