George Benson’s latest, Guitar Man, is a low-key affair that highlights his mastery of his signature instrument. He opens with a brief solo rendition of the standard “Tenderly,” setting a relaxed tone that continues throughout the album. According to the press notes, Benson took an “old school approach,” recording with very little rehearsal in order to capture a live, spontaneous vibe. His core group for the record was Joe Sample on piano, bassist Ben Williams, and drummer Harvey Mason. In addition to serving as musical director, David Garfield added keyboard.
A different line-up, however, was used for the smooth reinterpretation of Lennon/McCartney’s “I Want to Hold Your Hand.” It’s a unique take on the song, removing The Beatles’ pop exuberance and replacing it with a mature, romantic feel. Charlie Bisharat contributes lush violin lines, while Dan Higgins adds flute. That’s not the only pop standard Benson tackles, as he approaches Stevie Wonder’s “My Cherie Amour” more faithfully. While most of Guitar Man is instrumental, Benson steps out for an effective lead vocal. An understated version of Jesse Harris’ “Don’t Know Why” (Norah Jones’ breakout hit) features quiet, contemplative acoustic playing by Benson.
Leaning towards adult contemporary “smooth jazz” territory, Benson tackles one of the few obscure tunes from Michael Jackson’s Thriller, Rod Temperton’s “The Lady in My Life.” The last minute or so boasts some outstanding improvisations by Benson. Among the more grooving tracks is a fun version of The Champs’ surf-rock classic “Tequila.” The band really digs in on this one, following Benson’s shouted commands for solos. Also on the up-tempo side is a rollicking version of Ronnie Foster’s “Fingerlero,” with Benson scatting over his guitar lines.
Great American Songbook classics “My One and Only Love” and “Since I Fell For You” feature more tasteful lead vocals from Benson, along with excellent piano accompaniment (Sample on the former, Garfield on the latter). Harold Arlen’s chestnut “Paper Moon” is highlighted by gently swinging interplay among the ensemble. With twelve tunes in forty-two minutes, Guitar Man is an all-too-brief helping of George Benson at the top of his game, but one that is well worth hearing.