George Benson is one of the most successful performers in contemporary jazz, a fine singer and exceptional guitarist. In over forty years of professional playing, Benson has enjoyed all but unprecedented popular success for such an accomplished jazz performer. So much so that seeing him live in person and hearing him play his hits, you can't help but be impressed by just how many of them there are.
Opening for Benson at the Long Beach Terrace Theatre was local legend Al Williams and his Jazz Society.
The Al Williams' Jazz Society turned in a typically nice set of hard bop and blues, opening with a very fast version of Herbie Hancock's "Cantaloupe Island." Particularly enjoyable was bassist Nedra Wheeler, whose physical style of playing was a treat to watch. Mid-set the group was joined by singer Niki Harris, who sang with sass and style, especially on a hilarious take of "Guess Who I Saw Today." The band's set, however, was marred somewhat by an uneven mix that rendered the horns at times inaudible.
It's understood that a lot has changed in the decades since George Benson walked the other side of Abbey Road as the heir apparent to Wes Montgomery. During that time, Benson experienced a tremendous amount of crossover success with an R & B-inflected blend of jazz that featured him as much in the role of a vocalist, as a guitarist. That said, having never seen him in person before, I was a bit surprised when he took the stage in front of six other musicians singing "Let Me Love You" and not so much as wearing a guitar. He would, fortunately, go on to pick one up a little later and play a nice version of "Breezin'", but the opening number set a tone for the night; George played only a couple of instrumentals toward the very beginning of his set, and played guitar on perhaps half the songs he sang.
As with the first band, the mix did Benson no favors. The drums and bass overpowered the other instruments; the two keyboardists were audible to varying degrees throughout the night, while the second guitarist at times might as well not have even been playing. The volume of the music in general was a bit too loud--reaching a rock concert decibel level in what is a symphony hall. The beat ricocheted against the back of the theater to meet the music being played; it was a bit disorienting. Even during ballads like "Nothing's Gonna Change My Love For You," the drummer was too much; he reminded me of the Saturday Night Live sketch with Christopher Walken, Will Farrell and the cowbell. Eventually, the sound came together a little bit, but it never was exactly right.
The saving grace was that Benson came through crystal clear, both vocally and instrumentally. He was in fine form on both counts, his voice warm and expressive and his fretboard runs as dazzling as ever--although his tone was a bit more distorted and processed than I am used to hearing from him. He sounded especially good when he combined the two in his trademark style of singing the same notes as he is playing in his solos.
George opened and closed with some of his big hits, but threw a bunch of covers in-between and seemed to have a lot of fun with them. With one keyboard intimating the sounds of brass and strings, he crooned Bobby Darin's "Beyond the Sea" and gave a tour-de-force reading of "Moody's Mood For Love." He then ran through a series of classic R & B cuts including a funky take of "The Ghetto."
In time-honored fashion, Benson saved his best known songs for last, getting the crowd up on their feet with a set-closing version of "Give Me The Night." He came back for an encore of "This Masquerade" and "On Broadway," supercharging his last solo to bring the evening to a close. George Benson played well and proved an engaging entertainer, overcoming what were some fairly serious problems with the sound.