George Benson’s chart successes in the 1970s and ’80s as a breezy R&B crooner have largely obscured his initial promise as a boss jazz guitarist with a intelligent, liquid tone — an heir to Wes Montgomery’s throne.
The new Benson album, a tribute to a performer with this remarkably similar history of trading an underrated career as an instrumentalist for that of a pop vocalist, ensures that this wrong won’t be righted any time soon. Inspiration: A Tribute to Nat King Cole (due June 4, 2013, from Concord) finds Benson’s guitar strapped into the backseat as he performs a series of silky smooth vocal numbers associated with Cole before a bright if largely uninteresting string-focused big band.
Benson remains, it must be said, an endlessly approachable singer — much in the same way, actually, that Cole was. But even the presence of trumpeter Wynton Marsalis’s clarion horn on warhorses like “Unforgettable” fails to reanimate songs that have simply been pounded into cultural dust by an avalanche of movie soundtracks, remakes and commercial ripoffs. And the arrangements are as safe as the material is threadbare.
There are moments, though ever so brief, when Inspiration: A Tribute to Nat King Cole nearly lives up to its name — when Benson, for instance, lets slip a little growl on a small-band take on “Route 66,” adding a funky and restrained aside on the guitar. But soon enough, the orchestra wanders back in — like an avalanche of gauzy sentimentality — and it’s all but forgotten.