Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Jammin' with George Benson

George Benson Live At Montreux 1986
Eagle Rock Entertainment // 2005 // 87 Minutes // Not Rated

Reviewed by Steve Evans

Author’s note: Starting today, at least once a week I plan to report on a particularly noteworthy concert DVD. Following in my own musical tastes, reviews will typically cover rock, jazz and classical concert discs, with emphasis on the audio/video quality and effectiveness of the SurroundSound mix. I find there are only a few pleasures in life that surpass the experience of hearing a tight band kick out the jams, especially when I pump several hundred amps behind their sound and flow it through a Dolby 5.1 SurroundSound speaker package with a seriously powerful subwoofer to deliver a rib-rattling bottom. As the first entry in this recurring series, I can testify that the disc below will set your toes a-tapping. ~ Steve

Opening Shot
Guitarist George Benson and his big band groove through 15 tracks of old-school R&B, pop, and instrumental jazz during the 20th Montreux Jazz Festival.

Dig it:
After more than 40 years of slinging a guitar, Benson’s virtuoso playing now surpasses the skill of his idol and inspiration, jazz legend Wes Montgomery (1925-1968), while his vocal style compares with Stevie Wonder. All influences aside, Benson remains a brilliant instrumentalist who builds song breaks from waves of notes cascading into octave strumming. This is the technique that made Montgomery famous. When Benson runs a solo, he takes flight like an eagle from a mountaintop: soaring and gliding, tracing intricate patterns on his Les Paul with infallible rhythm while the audience sits in stunned rapture. His soulful vocal style puts the “ool” in cool.

Benson was at the top of his game when this show was recorded July 1986. Looking for a new definition of smooth? Here ’tis.

The man is long overdue for recognition as one of the greatest living jazz guitarists. Back in the ’70s, when his career was beginning to catch fire, music magazines would damn Benson with faint praise. Sure, he's a superb guitarist, the critics said, then they'd blast Benson for his pop leanings, which were the very sensibility that got him recognized and moved records out of store bins in the first place. Purists liked to whip on Benson for not being a “true” jazz musician because he also crooned sweet love songs and rubbed a little funk into his rhythm section. This made no more sense than trying to criticize Clapton for betraying the blues because every now and again he liked to alter the form with a hard rocking number like “Layla.”

Critical opinion has a way of being reevaluated over time, and Benson’s been jamming consistently since 1963. One spin of this DVD will make believers out of skeptics; music elitists be damned.

This disc is much more than a live greatest hits package, although all of Benson's famous songs are here. Plenty of old favorites get a workout, just as Benson puts a new spin on some remarkable old favorites. When he sings “The Greatest Love of All” he clearly means it (this song was written specifically for Benson, whose performance can be heard in the 1977 Mohammed Ali biopic The Greatest). Benson's take renders Whitney Houston’s overwrought cover of the song virtually unlistenable.

The show only gets better. A concert highlight is an absolutely swingin’ cover of the old Bobby Darin standard, “Beyond the Sea.” Benson delivers finger-poppin’ thrills from a bygone era of cool.

Returning for an encore, the band lays some funk to “On Broadway,” with a heavy bass line thumping in counterpoint to Benson’s rapid-fire scat singing. His guitar solo is an aural wonder of pin-point control; sonic acrobatics that loop back to the bridge for a tight call-and-response from the band:

They say the neon lights are bright on Broadway/They say there's always magic in the air.

There was alchemy in the air the night Benson performed at Montreux. He sets up a terrific jam to close the set, with the band performing at the peak of its power. And then the levee breaks. The audience can't hold back any longer. They give it up, dancing and clapping and whooping with joy. That’s what I call a show.

What’s on the Disc, Steve?
I’ll tell ya. Audio and video are top-notch. Three sound mixes provide maximum enjoyment either on home theater with Dolby 5.1 and DTS, or PCM stereo while on the road with headphones and a laptop or portable DVD player.

There are no disc extras, but the keepcase contains a tri-fold with decent liner notes and a smattering of color photographs from the concert. This is definitely worth having, as the notes provide context and insight into Benson's long career, now spanning more than 40 years. Word is, the guitar virtuoso is back in the studio working on an album for release later in 2009.

This is simply one of the most electrifying jazz concerts on DVD. Cheers for the music lovers at Eagle Rock who perform a valuable public service by making these great Montreux concerts available on DVD — at a refreshingly reasonable price, no less.

Set List:
• Feel Like Making Love
• Off Broadway
• Weekend in L.A.
• Lady Love Me (One More Time)
• Love Ballad
• Beyond the Sea
• Affirmation
• My Latin Brother
• Love X Love
• In Your Eyes
• The Greatest Love of All
• 20/20
• Never Give Up on a Good Thing
• Turn Your Love Around
• On Broadway

Copyright © 2009 by Steve Evans // dba Cinema Uprising. All rights reserved.

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