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George Benson & Al Jarreau - Givin' It Up Print E-mail
Thursday, 01 March 2007
format:    16-bit CD
performance:    4
sound:    6
release year:    2006
label:    Concord
reviewed by:    Scott Yanow

ImageGeorge Benson and Al Jarreau have in some ways had similar careers. Both started out as brilliant jazz performers, made a decision somewhere along the line to veer towards a more commercial path and have had great commercial success, often at the cost of their music. Both are household names, prosperous and probably not very concerned about the opinions of much of the jazz world, since their fame reaches far beyond jazz.

George Benson was originally a singer, cutting a couple of 45s when he was just a child. He emerged in the mid-1960s as one of jazz’s greatest guitarists, a successor to Wes Montgomery who sounded perfectly at home in organ combos as well as straight-ahead settings with trumpeter Freddie Hubbard and tenor saxophonist Stanley Turrentine. His life changed permanently in 1976 when, on an otherwise instrumental album called Breezin’, he sang Leon Russell’s “This Masquerade,” part of the time singing in unison with his guitar. The recording became a major hit, and immediately Benson was in demand as a singer. His guitar playing became more of a prop than a creative device as he recorded quite a few dull but popular albums. Since that time he has featured his guitar more and shown that he is a colorful entertainer. But in reality, a George Benson live show in 2007 is little different than what he was performing in 1997, or even 1987, and one no longer expects many surprises from him.
When Al Jarreau first gained attention in the mid-1970s, he had endless potential. His very flexible voice, ability to imitate instruments to eerie perfection (including a conga solo), knowledge of music and inventive scatting meant that he was in line to be the leading male jazz singer, probably for decades. But he quickly decided that he preferred to record light R&B/pop, and commercially his decision made great sense. His records are consistent best sellers, while hinting here and there at his jazz roots. In concert he will perform a jazz song or two (such as Chick Corea’s “Spain” or Dave Brubeck’s “Blue Rondo a La Turk”), teasing the jazz audience before emphasizing his bland form of R&B.

Givin’ It Up teams George Benson and Al Jarreau for the first time. The idea seems logical and one hopes before hearing it that the two major names inspired each other. How is the music?

Unfortunately, with a few exceptions, the result is safe easy-listening music, pleasant for backgrounds but not worth paying attention to very closely. Things start out promising with a vocal version of “Breezin’,” and there is some good interplay between Jarreau and Benson on Marcus Miller’s “Tutu.” But “Ordinary People,” which features Marion Meadows on soprano, sounds like something heading for “smooth” radio, Jill Scott’s guest vocal appearance on “God Bless the Child” (a song that should be retired) is forgettable, Patti Austin is capable of much better than this “Let It Rain” (which, in light of Katrina, seems a bit distasteful), and “Summer Breeze” is as trivial as its title.

In a token bit of creativity, Benson and Jarreau revive Miles Davis’ “Four,” swinging a bit and scatting as if to tease the jazz audience. But even in that case the results are a bit flawed, with the song taken at a slower than optimum tempo. And why bring back a song over half a century old instead of creating some interesting new jazz?

One could imagine performers with one-third the talent of George Benson and Al Jarreau recording a similar set. Even with greatly lowered expectations, on an artistic level Givin’ It Up is a wasted effort, although it will almost certainly sell well. It looks better on paper than it sounds on the stereo.

While the music is dull, one cannot complain about the sound quality. The instrumentation changes from song to song and the performances were recorded over a seven-day period, but no matter what the setting, the voices of Jarreau and Benson are in the forefront, with Benson’s guitar usually audible in the background. It is a pity that more rewarding music did not result from this match up.

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