When we last visited a George Benson recording, it was about his remake of the still fresh-out-the-oven Abbey Road. Fast forward seven years later, to 1976: Benson had just ended his long and artistically successful stint with CTI Records, having been enticed back to the majors by Warner Brothers. Warners put Tommy LiPuma in charge of producing Benson's records and the relationship, which spanned four years and four albums, transformed the guitarist/singer from a jazz star to a jazz-pop superstar. His ascension in status started right off with the jazz record everyone knows about, Breezin', and the two hits it spun ("Masquerade," Breezin'").
Those hits would be followed up next year with his burnin' live version of On Broadway," from Weekend In L.A., but the hit-less In Flight is a forgotten stepping stone from his first Warners to his third. Attempting to capitalize on the surprise success of Masquerade," LiPuma and Benson made four of the six tracks on In Fight include his soulful vocals. Aside from that, it's a Breezin' redux, and once again, conductor Claus Ogerman was enlisted to dump buckets of cushy orchestration on even the funky numbers. Yes, it's my main pet peeve with the LiPuma era, because Benson was in command of one of the tightest soul-jazz units ever with Phil Upchurch (rhythm guitar) and Ronnie Foster (keys) carried over from the CTI days, and adding Stanley Banks on bass guitar, original Head Hunter Harvey Mason on drums and the ever-present Ralph McDonald on percussion. LiPuma evidently thought that diluting the fiercely taut funk would make more people buy the records, but it moved the music into danceable Muzak territory.
Sometimes, even Ogerman's heavy handedness couldn't stop the inspired grooves, and Valdez In The Country," one of In Flight's two instrumentals, is one of those times. Valdez" is a Donny Hathaway cover from his 1973 Extension Of A Man album, and not one of his better known songs. Perhaps the reason for this is because Hathaway was known as a singer, but this number was conceived as an instrumental in its original form. Hathaway led the way with an electric piano, and it was fairly loose groove. In contrast, Benson & Co. retains the basic melody but adds a dark, two-chord sequence used in the intro and visited again for a portion of Benson's solo part, providing a contrast to the main chord sequences. The strings are heavier there, accentuating the dark overtones, then recede when the theme is played by Benson's indestructible unit.
Benson plays that theme by way of his famed octaves. Smooth, flawless and nimble, Montgomery could only dream about doing it this well. But where Benson excels on this song is where he excels on so many other ones: he plays equally melodically and rhythmically at a high level. He is always precisely in the pocket and somehow consistently finds the best notes to play and he doesn't even break a sweat doing so. A couple of generations of imitators have followed closely listening to records like this one, and as yet none of them does it as well as he does.
Valdez" is picked out of dozens of other examples of Benson's amazing fretwork I could have chosen, simply because Hathaway wrote a damned good whistle-able earworm. It's one of the handful of tunes I haven't been able to get out of my head for, oh, about the last thirty years now. George Benson's voice may have helped to make him a jazz-pop superstar, but all the commercially driven product he's pumped out over the years does nothing in my mind to obscure his craftsmanship of the highest order.
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