“Guitar Man” is one of George Benson’s jazziest and most intimate recordings in years. It returns the spotlight to his guitar virtuosity, which became somewhat overshadowed by his vocals after his 1976 multiplatinum crossover album “Breezin.’” Benson returns to his roots, when he was one of the most respected jazz guitarists, but at the same time does not neglect his pop fans, performing a repertoire ranging from John Coltrane (“Naima”) to Michael Jackson (“The Lady In My Life”) and Norah Jones (“Don’t Know Why”).
Benson opens with the ballad “Tenderly,” one of two solo guitar tracks on which his soft, flowing lines enhance the melody. His other solo track on the Irish ballad “Danny Boy” begins with Benson creating a bagpipe-like effect on guitar, as he uses his formidable technique in a nuanced way. On “Paper Moon,” he playfully trades licks with pianist Joe Sample in a straight-ahead jazz quartet with a superb rhythm section of up-and-coming bassist Ben Williams and a longtime collaborator, drummer Harvey Mason. The highlight among the jazz offerings is “Naima,” on which Benson stretches the most improvisationally.
On the pop instrumental side, Benson offers echoes of “Breezin’” by recasting the early Beatles’ hit “I Want to Hold Your Hand” as a smooth jazz ballad with his lightly swinging guitar lines enhanced by the orchestral arrangement. He stays closer to the original on his boisterous, rocking version of The Champs’ 1958 instrumental “Tequila.”
Benson sings on only four of the 12 tracks. He engages in his distinctive scatting along with his guitar lines to a limited extent on a soulful version of Stevie Wonder’s “My Cherie Amour” and more extensively on the up-tempo, hard-driving “Fingelero,” written by “Breezin’” collaborator Ronnie Foster.
Benson recorded this CD with minimal rehearsal and little overdubbing giving it a more spontaneous feel. Its main shortcoming is its relatively short running time (42-minutes-plus) that merely whets the appetite to hear more from the guitar man.
CHECK THIS TRACK OUT: On “My One and Only Love,” Benson opens with an exquisite 16-bar guitar solo, then silkily sings the lyrics backed by an acoustic combo, revealing his talent as a jazz balladeer in a performance taking after the 1963 Johnny Hartman-John Coltrane collaboration.