Sony/BMG’s Legacy division has released single- and double-CD retrospectives on everyone from Igor Stravinsky to Earl Scruggs as part of its “Essential” series. It has spanned 50-plus years, surveying giants like Dave Brubeck, and released such dubious titles as The Essential Redbone. Not Leon Redbone – Redbone, the band. “Come And Get Your Love,” “The Witch Queen Of New Orleans” – that Redbone. Somehow “essential” isn’t the first word that comes to mind when one thinks of Redbone – as infrequently as that might occur.
But with someone as formidable as George Benson (who has had at least two dozen retrospectives devoted to him), the problem is how to cram 40-plus years of great playing and singing, delving into his many sides and talents, into a two-CD set. Not that everything Benson has committed to vinyl or plastic is “essential,” but his batting average is mighty high.
If you were to randomly ask 100 jazz guitarists who the best living exponent of jazz guitar is, more than likely Benson would emerge as the frontrunner, poll after poll. The reasons are obvious; his technical mastery of the instrument, his rich tone, his innate sense of swing, the aggressiveness with which he attacks some songs, the subtle nuances with which others are imbued, his unswerving hipness, the unmistakable funk, the breadth of the material and environs in which he’s comfortable. And then there’s his singing!
It’s interesting to compare Essential to the two-disc Anthology Rhino/Warner Archives released in 2000. Both kick off, appropriately, with Benson in the company of organ great Brother Jack McDuff – Anthology with the Burrell-influenced “Shadow Dancers,” from the 21-year-old’s first solo LP; Essential with 1963’s “Rock Candy,” from a blowing live outing by McDuff (followed by “Shadow Dancers”).
We then follow Benson, the new Columbia discovery, the guest on Miles Davis’ Miles In The Sky, the heir apparent to Wes Montgomery’s commercial funk with A&M, part of the CTI stable, and finally the hit vocalist of “This Masquerade,” “On Broadway,” and “Give Me The Night” – with cameos behind Stanley Turrentine, Tony Williams, and Dexter Gordon along the way. That takes us up to only 1980, therefore excluding such notable excursions as his 1990 foray with the Count Basie Orchestra, his album of standards (Tenderly), and Collaboration, with his former rhythm guitarist, Earl Klugh.
But whereas Anthology covers more ground (the above albums and more), it comes off as a bit of a sampler, whereas Essential illuminates more of the half of a career it concentrates on. And there’s no law saying Legacy can’t release The Essential George Benson, Vol. II someday. Plenty of guitarists would welcome it
This article originally appeared in VG‘s June ’06 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.