Thursday, June 06, 2013

A Tribute to the Voice, but Not the Playing

Before Nat King Cole became famous for his beautiful crooning, singing songs like "Unforgettable," "Mona Lisa," and "Route 66," he was the leader of a hot trio. That silky voice made people forget his prowess at the piano. I have noticed that many who know the music of George Benson have the same problem: they remember him singing such tunes as "Turn Your Love Around" and "This Masquerade." They forget his hit "Breezin" or his early work shredding Miles Davis' "Oleo" and "All Blues," or even trying on Wes Montgomery's "Four on Six." Remember that great part of "On Broadway" that is equal parts guitar solo and scat?

Hence, while I find this project, where Benson pays tribute to the Nat King Cole, enjoyable, I am disappointed about what is not here. I'm sure I'll be in the minority, but I would love to have heard at least a couple pieces from Cole's pre-singing catalog. Failing that, I would like to have heard more of Benson's guitar.

Make no mistake. George Benson still has a wonderful voice, and he does a serviceable job with these songs. Not only do we have sweet versions of ballads like "Too Young," "When I Fall In Love," and "Smile" (probably my favorite), but the peppier songs like "Route 66" and "Straighten Up and Fly Right" are given solid treatment and delivered with Benson's usual punch. But the guitar is all but absent. The solo on "Unforgettable" is mediocre, and the one on "Nature Boy" is nice, but too short. While the playing on "Straighten Up and Fly Right" is much closer to what I am used to from Mr. Benson, it meanders perhaps a bit. Other than a handful of acoustic flourishes on "Mona Lisa," that is pretty much all the six-string work listeners get.

The album is going to be very enjoyable for those who like the lush strings or big band arrangements one used to hear on Nat King Cole's most memorable performances. It is romantic and pleasant. But if you are looking for the George Benson whose fingers fly on the fretboard, you are not going to find much.

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