George Benson – Inspiration: A Tribute to Nat King Cole (2013)

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.

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Nick DeRiso

Over a 30-year career, Nick DeRiso has also explored music for USA Today, All About Jazz, Ultimate Classic Rock and a host of others. Honored as columnist of the year five times by the Associated Press, Louisiana Press Association and Louisiana Sports Writers Association, he oversaw a daily section named Top 10 in the nation by the AP before co-founding Something Else! Contact him at nderiso@somethingelsereviews.com.
  • Ken Zeichner

    As the album title says, this is “A Tribute To Nat King Cole”. As such it contains 12 of the songs closely identified with Nat King Cole; just as one of the great things about Nat King Cole was the range of music he performed in an “endlessly approachable” way in a variety of settings including his jazz trio, with big bands like Billy May’s swinging, high flying up-tempo brass and winds, and with Nelson Riddle’s lush orchestral arrangements, so George Benson sings (including beautiful duets with Idina Menzel and Judith Hill) and plays the mix of ballads and swing pieces in the same “endlessly approachable” way in a range of instrumental settings and styles with high quality musicianship displayed by the members of the Henry Mancini Institute Orchestra and others like Randy Waldman and German jazz trumpeter Till Bronner. Rather than finding this album lacking because it doesn’t “right” the “wrong” of Benson’s success as a pop vocalist, this album is worthy of celebration as a successful homage by Benson to his inspiration that will bring a “Smile” to all who are capable of appreciating it for what it is.