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JAZZ REVIEW

George Benson Sticks With His Tried and True Formula

September 23, 1996|BILL KOHLHAASE | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

George Benson isn't just resting on his laurels. He's capitalizing on them.

At the Universal Amphitheatre Friday, the songs Benson performed from a new CD blended invisibly into a retrospective program that spanned the 20 years since "Breezin'," the guitarist-singer's first commercial hit LP, was released in 1976. Despite a mix of ballads and backbeat numbers, instrumental and vocal features, the songs seemed all of a kind.

Who can blame Benson for sticking to a formula that has sold as many records as it has? The R&B-styled material, burnt-sugar vocals and hot guitar licks may never satisfy those jazz fans who thought Benson was destined to succeed Wes Montgomery. But those traits certainly pleased his mostly middle-aged fans at the Amphitheatre, who took to their feet to clap, shout and dance along.

Benson's guitar playing was as good as ever. Long, ambitious lines sizzled out over the accessible beats and were followed by sharply strummed accents. Though his phrases seldom hung together in any narrative form, they stood fat and proud all by themselves.

But his voice is another matter. The tones weren't as sugary as in earlier days, possibly due to a rigorous touring schedule. For whatever reason, Benson seemed to struggle at times, especially in the upper register, and a certain, uncharacteristic gruffiness colored his overall delivery.

He still sounds good scatting along with his guitar play, a technique that tends to focus his often askew vocal pitch. And his phrasing is filled with attractive jazz inflection, though it came across as too stylized at times, especially on new songs "Summer Love" and "Footprints in the Sand."

The only detectable difference came from the six-piece backup band, led by pianist David Witham, which injected a harder edge into some of the guitarist's better-known numbers, including "On Broadway." Guest keyboardist Ronnie Foster brought some improvisational spark to a pair of tunes.

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