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.
Conversely, when Benson and Jarreau approach the Miles Davis-written "Four," they seem intent on taking an approach that says, "This is a standard so we need it to sound like a standard." There's nothing really wrong with the performance. But what we really want to hear is the creativity and intensity Benson and Jarreau are capable of displaying individually and collectively.
That is not to say none of that exists on the CD. "'Long Come Tutu" is an extended, far jazzier piece in which Jarreau adds lyrics to Marcus Miller's "Tutu." It features not only Jarreau's vocal talents but shows Benson in a more traditional jazz setting and he turns in what is unquestionably his best solo on the CD. The impact is bolstered by the excellent sidework of composer Miller on bass and piano legend McCoy Tyner. Similarly, Jarreau trades verses with Jill Scott on a nice rendition of "God Bless the Child" and Benson shows his own not inconsiderable vocal talents on the ballad "All I Am." Jarreau and Benson even turn "Ordinary People," written by John Legend and will.i.am, into a smooth jazz-tinged, largely instrumental work featuring Benson's guitar.
The problem, though, is what Benson and Jarreau seem to have suffered separately over the last several years. Portions of their work are absolutely stunning. But equally as often they seem to be artists trying too hard to find commercial success and, thus, trying to be too much to too many. As a result, their efforts, like this CD, seem to lack direction. Like their past work, parts of Givin' it Up are stellar while other parts leave you wondering if these can be the same musicians who just enthralled you.
As a result, fans of either artist will find this an acceptable to distinguished effort but detractors will point to it as another example of a tendency to underachieve. Perhaps the latter comes with the territory when you have the considerable talents these gentlemen possess.