CD Review: Sax Master
"It has become a cliche to call a
new record, book or movie long-awaited, but the term certainly
applies to this new CD Sax
Master by George Benson. And not just because
George has not recorded in a long while. No, I have been waiting for
this CD since George Benson brought the house down with this same quartet
on the main stage at the 1998 Montreux Detroit Jazz Festival.
I had heard George perform around town
on many occasions, and had already formed a pretty high opinion of his
abilities. But nothing I had heard before prepared me for what I heard
that night. George played with a sense of power and a feeling of freedom
and abandon that just seemed to well up inside of him from a deep and
untapped source. And the trio backing him just kicked and churned and
cut loose. The crowd out front, packed together right to the aisles
and walkways, sensed that something special was happening, participated
in the excitement, and loved every minute.
I talked to both Don Mayberry and Tom Brown
backstage afterwards and they were still excited about the musical adventure
they had just participated in. That's when George told me that he was
in the process of recording with group. And that's when the waiting
I am pleased to report that this CD has been worth
the wait. You will not think the title Sax Master presumptuous if
you are familiar with the playing of George Benson, and certainly
not if you were in the audience at Montreux in 1998.
...But nothing I had heard before prepared me for what I heard
that night. George played with a sense of power and a feeling
of freedom and abandon that just seemed to well up inside of
him from a deep and untapped source....
Of course, George could not have done this CD himself,
and one thing that he has learned in his years of playing experience
is how to choose his sidemen. Here, as at Montreux in '98, George
is accompanied, challenged, and matched bold stroke for bold stroke
by three of the best players in town. Gary Schunk may be one of the
finest pianists in the country, and in any kind of just universe,
he would have been hailed nationally as one of the great young lions
of jazz while he was still young. As it is, he is the most frequently
sought sideman in town, and has appeared on several important CDs,
including Chris Collins' "A Time to Mourn, A Time to Dance,"
Paul VornHagen's "Parisian Protocol" and "Swing
as You Are," Brad Felt's "Exordium," Donald
Walden's "A Monk and a Mingus Among Us," and Sheila
Landis' "Jazzscapes." In addition, he has released
his own CD, "The Key Player," the title of which
accurately defines his role on the Detroit jazz scene.
...The group has uncovered some lost
treasures, and in some cases, has spun gold out of some real
The choice of tunes on this CD is unusual, just as it was for that
knockout Montreux performance. Apart from the tunes jazz musicians
have always played, such as The Way You Look Tonight, For
Heavens Sake, Lullaby of the
Leaves, ad Thad Jones', A Child is Born, the group
has uncovered some lost treasures, and in some cases has spun gold
out of some real dross.
First the lost treasures: I had not heard the Billy
Strayhorn composition Johnny Come Lately and I am pleased to
be introduced to it. It is up-tempo with nice changes, and it
serves as a solid opener here. If you liked Chelsea Bridge
and Isfahan, you will be pleased to meet this close relation.
And George's solo on alto demonstrates
his complete mastery of the medium, reaching back before Bird
and covering all the ground since.
Now the unusual choices: Love Nest,
an up-tempo show tune, is not standard jazz fare, but listen to the
slowed-down gospel feel engendered here. And George takes advantage
of the additional time between beats to let loose some rapid fire
bop on alto.
And My melancholy Baby? Even
when Charlie Parker recorded it, he didn't bother to state the head.
But the melody is stated here with good effect, medium two-beat tempo
with rhythmic punctuation. And George's solo on alto demonstrates
his complete mastery of the medium, reaching back before Bird and
covering all the ground since.
Another surprise here is The
Shadow of Your Smile. I thought only us cocktail players were
keeping it alive. But the quartet takes a fresh look here, as if starting
over from the beginning with no preconceptions. A gentle wave of bossa
rhythm and a misty wisp of chords introduces a breathy, understated
tenor which floats effortlessly over the rhythm section. George's
solo emerges seamlessly out of the theme, without a ripple disturbing
the serene surface. At the easy pace, you just kick back and enjoy
subtle nuances of rhythm and tone.
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Source: Detroit Jazz CD Review
For those of you not familiar with his work, I should
explain that we in Detroit have had to begin calling him George
Sax Benson to distinguish him the the guitar player of the same
name. Then I should explain that George has been a mainstay on the
Detroit jazz scene for almost fifty years. Then I would have to
explain further that you shouldn't therefore expect to hear anything
old coming from George Benson, despite his age. In fact, George
has just retired from thirty years service with the U.S. Postal
Service. Which just might explain the new-found youth and energy
that you hear on this CD. It is as if the escape from the daily
need to report for duty has unleashed in George the powerful force
of freedom to be what he always felt he could be. This CD, then
represents George Benson, a true Sax Master, Unleashed.
You will not think
the title Sax Master presumptuous if you are familiar with
the playing of George Benson...
Don Mayberry is not only a prime mover in the Detroit scene, he
continues to travel several months each year backing name performers,
and at one time or other, has toured with every major vocalist,
including Joe Williams, Mel Torme, and Diane Schuur. He appears
on the Marla Jackson CD, "Marla Jackson Sings,"
and he recorded a unique duo project "Let My People Go"
with vocalist Ange Smith, both on the Alembic Arts label.
Tom Brown is a Ph.D. Physiologist engaged in research,
who also happens to be the most tasteful, inventive, and versatile
drummer around anywhere. He is heard sparingly in jazz circles during
most of the year, but come the summer festival season, he appears
with everyone who has the good sense to call him first. He has appeared
in every Montreux Festival since its inception, both as a leader
and as a sideman, and most years, he makes several appearances at
Montreux. Some years he would have earned the MVP award if they
gave one. Along with bassist Dan Kolton, Tom constitutes the official
Midwest rhythm section for the traveling Mose Allison.
will delight in George's moving treatment on tenor, which
for me captured some great memories.
I didn't know that anyone else in town played I
Surrender Dear. It is so beautiful and so little-known that
I have been tempted to tell people that I wrote it. I first heard
it performed on an old ten-inch Jazz at the Philharmonic
LP which I still treasure for its pairing of Lester Young and Charlie
Parker on the same band stand. Their interpretations were so lyrical
and moving, I dug the tune out of an old fake book, and have played
it ever since. You will delight in George's moving treatment on
tenor, which for me captured some great memories. Some of These
Days is fitted with an intriguing three-chord vamp and features
George's muscular tenor sound at medium tempo.
But the quartet takes a fresh look here,
as if starting over from the beginning with no preconceptions.
Who would have thought Ja Da, a nonsense novelty tune of
the early teens, could yield such fine results as are found here.
Updated with a bluesy, straight-eighth funk feel, this treatment
just brings a smile to the corners of the mouth and sets the fingers
tapping. George and the group just have fun with this, unaware that
they are unconsciously demonstrating that great players don't need
a luxury vehicle to get you there. Just relax and enjoy the ride.
There are masters at the wheel."
-- Mitch Genova, February,