This interview was originally published in 2010.
Anyone interested in jazz guitar has undoubtedly come across Cookbook, Benson Burner, and It’s Uptown, an extraordinary triumvirate of mid 60’s albums. These recordings represented the peak of jazz guitar playing at the time, clearly establishing a young George Benson as the most exciting guitarist to emerge on the scene since Wes Montgomery.
Ten years later, Benson shifted gears (under the tutelage of producer/svengali Tommy LiPuma), virtually inventing the genre that would later become known as smooth jazz with his million-selling hit album from 1976, Breezin. From that point on, Benson began playing less and singing more while enjoying the kind of financial rewards that his previous incarnation as “the baddest guitar man” on the planet could never afford.
At one mid-’80s performance at the Montreux Jazz Festival, for example, George put his guitar on a stand for most of the set and strolled the edge of the stage with a hand mic, like a genuine pop star. There have been a few concessions to jazz since then, including 1989’s Tenderly,1990’s Count Basie tribute, Big Boss Band, along with one memorable performance at 1996’s JVC Jazz Festival in New York in which George strapped on his guitar and proceeded to blow everyone away with his sheer instrumental prowess. But Benson knows what side his bread is buttered on, and he’s not likely to be returning to his smokin’ jazz roots anytime soon.
However, that doesn’t mean George doesn’t still have the urge to burn. In his few, rare guest appearances on record (like 1999’s Bringin’ It Homewith early 60’s mentor Jack McDuff), Benson burns the joint to the ground with all the excitable urgency of a youngblood with lots to prove. Jazz fans in Manhattan have been lucky enough to witness George, the inveterate jammer, sit in at intimate, low profile gigs around town — like the night he walked into the club Smoke along with baritone saxophonist Ronnie Cuber and sat in on organist Dr. Lonnie Smith’s gig, re-igniting their volatile chemistry from 1966’s Cookbook. There’s no question George still has that youthful exuberance in his playing along with a real hunger to swing.
At the same time, however, he seems somewhat trapped by his success. While friends and colleagues keep urging him to record a straight ahead burning quintet album as in the days of yore, it’s unlikely that he’ll turn his back on the R&B direction that helped make him a major star.
And yet, on his latest outing, Absolute Benson, he exhibits plenty of fretboard firepower. Backed by a jazzy crew including the great young upright bassist Christian McBride, organist Ricky Peterson, drummers Steve Gadd and Cindy Blackman and veteran pianist and founding member of the The Crusaders, Joe Sample, Benson burns in a variety of settings. From Latin-tinged scat-and-burn jams like The Ghetto and El Barrio to the funky Hipping The Hop, to a thoughtful instrumental rendition of Steve Wonder’s ballad Lately, his playing is typically impeccable and fierce as he blows over the barline with jazzy conviction. Unlike his past few contemporary jazz recordings — 1996’s That’s Rightand 1998’s Standing Together– Benson sings on only three numbers here, including a soulful reading of Ray Charles, Come Back Baby, giving him ample room to preach with his axe. And for guitar fans, that message comes in loud and clear.
Guitar.com: How’s everything, George?
Benson: Pretty good, man. I’m sitting in the Jacuzzi over here. That’s when you know everything’s cool.
Guitar.com: You stretch quite a bit on this album.
Benson: Yeah, man. I do love to play.
Guitar.com: That was obvious from that night up at Smoke not long ago where you jammed with Ronnie Cuber and Dr. Lonnie Smith.
Benson: Man! That took us back to some of our finest memories. I could play like that all night long. I like checking in with what the other cats are doing on their gigs. It keeps my mind involved. It’s good to know we have some cats out there trying to do something new and keep the music alive. I was over there checking out Jimmy Bruno the other day at a new club on 57th Street down the street from Carnegie Hall. Man, now this cat can play! He was tearing up the place. He played all the strings out the box the other night.
Guitar.com: When you prepare for a project like Absolute Benson, where you’re obviously going to be playing a lot, do you do any special preparations?
Benson: Well, I play every day. I pick up the guitar and try to make a mental list of all the things I need to sharpen up on in terms of what’s going on in the world today musically without letting it take me too far off the deep end. There are a lot of theoretical players who play some very interesting things, but they’re usually coming from a very personal point of view. And they have no understanding or way of approaching other things because they’re so locked up into that. That’s when you get so far into something that you can’t find your way out of it. It can happen to anybody. So I’m careful not to get swept away by any of these new things going on out there. Instead, I might be just looking to pick up a few things to add to what I already do. I may try to find a new device here or there, and then I’ll woodshed on that and try to incorporate it into what I do. For a long time I’ve been known for the way I play octaves and fast lines, but I had to work on those things for years before they were good enough to do in public. And if you discover one thing like that, it’s invaluable because people don’t forget it.
Guitar.com: Have you made any new discoveries lately or added any new techniques to your own vocabulary?
Benson: Years ago when I used to be a speed demon… you know, the guy with the fingers… I didn’t even think about tempo. That was not a factor. We just started playing and whatever tempo it was we just played the devil out of it, as you heard on those (mid-60’s) records with Ronnie Cuber, Lonnie Smith and Jimmy Lovelace. In those days we played it a lot brighter tempo-wise. But Wes Montgomery heard me back then and his comment was, Boy, when he slows down, he’s gonna be a monster. I never understood that until Breezin came out. And the reason why is it comes down to a place where Joe Blow, the common people, couldn’t understand what they were saying. Because when music is being played at such fast tempos, it goes by like a blip. It just goes right through them. The only thing they can determine from that kind of playing is, Well, that’s a bad young cat. But there’s nothing they can hang onto. When Charlie Parker played, you could always hear that melody. The song never left you. When he played ,Just Friends — one of the greatest solos if not thegreatest improvisational thing of all time, — you could still hear the song through all of that wonderful, stunning playing. To me, that’s the ultimate — to be yourself and yet still take people with you as you go along.
Guitar.com: You say that you play the guitar every day. Is there anything in particular that you work on?
Benson: I pick up my instrument and I kind of take what’s in the air floating around and try to bring it down to the guitar and turn it into something useful. You can’t invent something fresh every day but hopefully through all of that something unexpected and interesting will jump out — something that’s noticed by other players. And I think that’s why guitar players are interested in me still after all these years. A lot of them are speed demons themselves and they play brighter things and more modern things than I do, but they keep hearing some nuances when they hear me play… something I didn’t play the last time. So I think that’s what makes us worthy of going back for a second listen.
Guitar.com: Is there anything technically that you’re doing now that is different from the early days?
Benson: Well, on the new album, surprisingly enough, when I hear it I hear myself involved with the thumb a lot, which, of course, is a Wes trademark. Some of that tone also came from using a Gibson Johnny Smith guitar through 15-inch speakers, which kind of overdoes it in the woof section.
Guitar.com: Now that Absolute Bensonhas been released, are you already thinking about what’s coming up next?
Benson: Yeah, I was just hanging out with Prince over in Hawaii and we talked about doing something together, creating some music in his studio. That would be interesting. The other thing I’d like to do is a straight-ahead jazz album with just a trio or a quartet.
Guitar.com: Your old fans have been waiting on that for a long time.
Benson: Well, it’s something I’d love to do. Some people don’t really want to hear that. They just want to hear something that sounds like Benson… something like Give Me The Night or Masquerade or On Broadway. But the extended Benson… I’m not sure that they’re ready for that yet. Every time I try to pull it out, producers say, No, I don’t think they’re ready for that George. But they’re loosening up to the idea. And you know something? Radio now is starting to incorporate some serious musicianship even on the smooth jazz side. I hear some things being played that they would not have played two or three years ago. So like I tell people who are very disenchanted by that format, Give it time. Things do change.