Balancing Act

In their dreams young musicians bask comfortably and happily in the luxury of immense success. Those REM-induced illusions can be mapped out fairly easily: Critical acclaim and financial reward have settled on them like UV rays on a sunny day, rooms packed with beautiful new friends fall hushed in silent awe when they enter, and any momentary desire can be satisfied with the snap of a finger. Of course, the thicker-skinned can forgo the critical acclaim part but, still, the fact that these slumbering rock stars will pull down big bucks for shouting into a microphone or beating up on a drum kit is akin to throwing a few Franklins at a jobless drunk for helping to clear out an overstocked liquor cabinet.

The entertainment world, though, isn't quite that utopian. Eventually even the most talented musician must wake up and face his or her own rain-soaked reality: Cash flow does not increase proportionately with instrumental ability and the critics do not automatically smile on those with the fleetest fingers. Jazz players learn this lesson as early as anyone. Some accept that sad fact and eke out a living performing musical obscurities for small but reverent groups of fans in tiny clubs until their maker mercifully relieves them of their charge. Others, such as jazz-pop superstar George Benson, jump headlong into the mainstream and then spend a lifetime struggling against the current that is their fame and fortune, hoping not to be carried too far from their artistic ideals.

The widely known, commercially motivated Benson has drifted far from his hard bop and soul jazz days of the early Sixties. But even as he and his producers have channeled his music down more sedate courses -- R&B and pop influenced, for the most part -- he has maintained at least some degree of his old adventurousness. His extended guitar and scatting vocal solos have routinely polished into pop gems what would otherwise be mostly banal easy-listening elevator music.

In fact, Benson can for better or worse be credited as the creative role model for what has become a hugely popular and profitable segment of the music industry -- the jazz-lite phenomenon personified today by everybody's favorite whipping boy, Kenny G. Before Benson and his late-Seventies hits "This Masquerade," "Breezin'," and "On Broadway" (and maybe a couple of admittedly harder-edged cuts by Jeff Beck from the albums Wired and Blow by Blow), high-wattage radio stations rarely played songs with lengthy, jazz-tinged instrumental breaks.

Benson had the good sense to keep his chops up, however, perhaps anticipating the day when Top 40 radio would deem him old hat and the flow of multimillion-selling albums would dry up. By the mid-Eighties, his E-ticket ride was largely over, though he has scored a couple of number ones on the Billboard jazz charts in the past ten years: The 1989 album Tenderly (a collaboration with pianist McCoy Tyner), and 1993's Love Remembers both reached the top jazz album spot. His efforts to re-establish true jazz credibility after spending time as a darling of the pop world have apparently been successful, but then Benson's musical pedigree was always largely beyond reproach.

While most of its forty-four plus minutes conform to the airy, easily digestible formula Benson has followed for the past three decades, his new CD, Standing Together, does little to harm his well-earned reputation. The album, his second for jazz label GRP (after the 1996 release That's Right), hit number one on Billboard's Top Contemporary Jazz Albums chart in early August; the title track is one of the most-added cuts at smooth jazz stations nationwide.

The disc covers all the bases in Benson's game plan -- sultry ballads, steamy love songs, an undeniable groove, and jazzy sparks of his guitar and vocal virtuosity. Five of the nine songs are instrumentals, overflowing with the creamy, rounded six-string tone that has been his hallmark from the beginning -- or at least close to the beginning.

Little Georgie Benson, as he was once called, got an early start on a musical career. He picked up a ukulele at age six and was playing guitar by the time he was eight-years-old. He first sang on radio in his hometown of Pittsburgh at age four and had recorded vocal tracks for RCA before his twelfth birthday. He played R&B and rock in his teens, before jazz -- in the form of Charlie Christian, Wes Montgomery, and Charlie Parker -- turned him in a new direction. Benson was a natural and by age nineteen was playing soul jazz in a very popular combo lead by organist Brother Jack McDuff. Benson made a name for himself in the jazz community with Brother Jack McDuff Live!, recorded in 1963, and The New Boss Guitar, recorded with McDuff in 1964, both for the Prestige label. He went solo in 1965, mostly because McDuff wouldn't allow him to sing. Benson, who envisioned himself as somewhat of a Nat King Cole -- another instrumental master given to immaculate vocal melodies -- gave up the McDuff gig in order to pursue a more lucrative vein of music.

"He hated singers," Benson says of McDuff during a phone interview from his New Jersey home. "He said, 'I don't want no singin' in my band.' But those were some strugglin' and some hard days. You're playing every night, you're not really getting anywhere, you're just barely staying alive. You're eating, but that's it. If you miss a week, you're down, which you can never make up. So who wants to live like that? You can't live like that when you've got a family. That's out of the question. You do those things when you have no responsibility and you want to get all you can get. You go out and you see the world, and you struggle."

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