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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 started.

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 dross...





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
February, 2000

by

Mitch Genova

 

Sax Master CD - George Benson Quartet

Sax Master - CD by George Benson Quartet




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.


 

You 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, 2000