Whether vocalist extraordinaire Al Jarreau and guitarist George Benson should go down as icons or despoilers of jazz is a matter of perspective. Most see their styles as not only taking jazz to new levels but expanding its horizons and market. Others, particularly jazz elitists (snobs, if you prefer) see the way their careers developed as exemplifying the rise of "elevator jazz," "crossover jazz," or "smooth jazz," whichever they believe to be the coarsest epithet. Benson's and Jarreau's collaboration on Givin' It Up provides sufficient ammunition for both sides.
Fans of either artist would see this as a dream pairing far too long in the making. Benson's guitar style and tone are eminently compatible with Jarreau's stylistic and vocal range. To reinforce their complementary approaches, they open the CD by trading interpretations of tunes the other made a hit. It also reinforces the pitfalls of such approaches.
Jarreau opens with his lyrical interpretation of Benson's "Breezin'." Perhaps to remind listeners of how he did the same to Dave Brubeck's classic "Take Five," the opening notes are highly reminiscent of Jarreau's performance of "Take Five" on his 1977 live release, Look to the Rainbow. Jarreau does a fine job of verbalizing the tune, helped undoubtedly by Benson's underlying performance of it.
The same cannot be said of Benson's turn at "Mornin'," a 1983 hit for Jarreau. Benson essentially plays the lyric line, occasionally throwing in a few of his earmark phrasings and a workmanlike solo but nothing stunning. Instead, the performance reveals that the strength of the song is in the vocals, which even here are necessary to carry the tune to its emotional peak.
The album also features several covers of popular tunes, one of the things that has enthralled fans and occasionally infuriated detractors. Jarreau turns in a cover of the Seals and Croft hit, "Summer Breeze," while he and Benson collaborate vocally on Darryl Hall's "Every Time You Go Away" and Sam Cooke's "Bring It On Home to Me" (on which Paul McCartney also makes an appearance). The latter is perhaps the weakest of the covers, falling short of the emotion the song deserves. The other two are certainly worthy efforts but are far from compelling or signature renditions. They also squarely raise the question of whether these are not jazzy renditions of pop tunes but, instead, pop tinged with jazz and designed for a commercial "adult contemporary" market. The listener's individual take on that issue may greatly impact how the performances are accepted.