Fans of smooth jazz appreciated guitarist/vocalist George Benson's last album, 2006's Givin' It Up, a collaboration with Al Jarreau. While the two seemed to have great fun covering each other's songs as well as other soul and jazz classics, they sounded somewhat reserved, as if afraid to really cut loose. Benson's followup, Songs and Stories, features him doing what he does best: jazz-inflected R&B. While some cuts venture into smooth jazz territory, others allow him to display his funkier side.
For Songs and Stories, Benson selected songs that spoke to him lyrically. James Taylor's “Don't Let Me Be Lonely Tonight” gets a sultry makeover, while Donnie Hathaway's classic “Someday We'll All Be Free” also benefits from Benson's jazz-influenced version. His cover of “Rainy Night in Georgia” fits right in with his '70s output, recalling the seamless jazz and soul fusion of “Breezin'” and “This Masquerade.” While his guitar skills still impress (check out the extended solo on this song), his voice sounds even better on this track, with Benson exploring his range and interpreting the lyrics.
Although Benson covers many well-known classics, he also performs compositions written specifically for him. Soul legend Bill Withers came out of retirement to pen “A Telephone Call Away;” while not among his best compositions, it still bears his trademark of pure romanticism. Guest vocalist Lalah Hathaway provides a lovely counterpoint for Benson's voice. Better is the excellent Rod Temperton's “Family Reunion,” which suits Benson's jazz leanings perfectly. This piece of smooth, laid back, gentle soul should be the lead single for Songs and Stories.
Jazz artist Norman Brown guests on “Nuthin' But A Party,” with Brown even mentioning how thrilled he is to work with his “idol,” Benson. “Show Me the Love,” featuring Ray Parker, Jr. on guitar, also recalls Benson's '70s work, with the horns giving the song extra punch. As with many tracks on Songs and Stories, Benson recruited studio veterans such as horn master Jerry Hey, Paulinho Da Costa on percussion, Temperton, vocalist Patti Austin, saxophonist Tom Scott, and guitarist Lee Ritenour. The quality shows on virtually every track.
“One Like You,” written by Smokey Robinson and David Garfield, does enter smooth jazz territory, but Benson's enthusiastic vocals and the tune's beautiful chord changes rescue the song from the ordinary. More intriguing is “Living in High Definition,” a Lamont Dozier composition, which begins as a typical modern jazz instrumental but quickly transforms into a horn-filled, Indian-influenced (see The Stylistics's “You Are Everything”), wah-wah pedaled '70s homage. Benson scats, as usual, over his guitar, but the entire band is the star of this track, making it a good-time jam. Finishing on an instrumental version of “Sailing,” Benson correctly maintains the easygoing, mellow tone of Christopher Cross's original, while injecting some welcome jazzy guitar into the proceedings.
Benson fans who wish he would return to his '70s jazz-funk roots will find much to like about Songs and Stories. His voice sounds stronger than ever, and his nimble guitar playing remains distinctive and highly artistic. Unlike on some recent work, Benson finally lets loose and sounds re-energized. Overall, Songs and Stories represents a welcome return to soulful form.