George Benson – Bad Benson

With a cover like that, you just know it’s going to be B A D!

George Benson Bad Benson Cover Art

Recorded and released in 1974 for CTI Records, Bad Benson marks a decidedly aggressive and funky point in Benson’s long jazz career. Sure, he always played with a touch of funk and he could jam in-the-pocket with the best of them. But something happened here that pushed his funk just a little bit further.

With CTI mainstay Ron Carter holding down impossibly solid bass and drummer Steve Gadd dancing around him, the band, including additional guitarist Phil Upchurch and Kenny Barron on electric piano,  weave a rich tapestry of 70s CTI funk that lays back just enough for Benson to glide over. The sound, like most CTI recordings, is thick, dense and downright beautiful, aided by the always welcome orchestral touches that were a hallmark of the CTI sound (could I say CTI any more in one paragraph?).

Benson’s take on Paul Desmond’s “Take Five,” made famous by Dave Brubeck, is played with an almost aggressive fury that showcases Benson’s penchant for quick runs up and down the guitar with astonishing clarity and accuracy. I remember hearing this for the first time years ago in high school and being absolutely blown away by the sound of the band acting as one musical entity. Of course back then I didn’t know what made it quite so special, but now I can pick apart the pieces – Gadd’s funky drums, Carter’s fluid bass, Upchurch’s intensely funky rhythm guitar, and Barron’s sparkling clean piano all contribute towards the climax of hearing Benson go to town. Awesome.

“My Latin Brother” takes an initial laid back bossa nova approach that belies the fireworks Benson delivers as the song progresses. Punctuated by  stunning bursts of orchestral flavor, the song ebbs and flows in intensity yet never leaves the groove. Really, the whole album is all about the groove but what else would you expect from George Benson and the CTI crew in 1974?

Speaking of groove, “No Sooner Said Than Done” starts off like some sort of 70s love ballad, complete with smooth echoey piano and a damn near romantic guitar drenched in tremelo and reverb. Even as Benson starts his solo around 1:20 everything is calm, the waters completely still. But give him time, because as soon as Upchurch flips on his wah pedal things get thick with funk. The band is cooking now, holding down heavy slick grooves that Benson glides over with ease as the orchestra floats in again and again, creeping in just enough to keep things on the right side of beauty. Barron, taking one of his many beautifully engaging solos throughout the album, is so enchanting I don’t even mind that I’m not hearing more Benson.

“Full Compass” follows and sounds exactly like Zappa from this same time period. The abstract riffs and tight stop/start movement of the band is mesmerizing, especially as it leads into Bensons sharp and angular solo that is somehow also smooth and fluid at the same time. Once again the band holds down a smoldering groove so thick you can almost see the smoke in the studio, hanging low like a gauze net. It’s experimental tracks like this that made CTI such a varied and interesting record label. Thanks CTI.

The original album closes with the introspective “The Changing World,” the kind of beautiful song you put on as you turn away from a loved one and walk off into the sunset if we all lived in a 70s made-for-tv movie. Regardless, it’s beautiful music for music’s sake and nothing else and it’s a wonderful way to wind things down.

The 3 bonus tracks are stellar and include “Take the A Train,” “Serbian Blue,” and “From Now On.” While all three are fantastic, it’s “Serbian Blue” that really gets me. I mean really. Not only is it one of my favorite Benson tracks but it’s also one of my favorite jazz guitar tracks of all time. Things start out innocently enough with a slinky, late night groove that sets the mood for a journey of impeccable taste and utter awe.

Benson’s solo here, again aided by touches of orchestral flair along with some wonderfully placed congas, is superb. At first he’s just feeling the waters, sliding into things slowly so as not to upset the delicate groove that floats along with a steady river-like pace. After another wonderful Barron piano solo Benson comes in with some deep, low notes that quickly begin to rise to a controlled fury. He continues on, unstoppable in his clean dexterity and seemingly unending pocketful of jazz riffs. At this point, around 8 minutes in you think this is just a nice, smooth jazz track. But Benson isn’t done yet. He builds it, builds everything, lays the foundation for future jazz guitarists sitting in their basements and trying to figure out just what the hell he’s doing. I’ve done this myself many times and I’m still just as astonished at what happens next.

Right around 9 minutes things really start getting serious. The band and the orchestra are cooking and Benson is starting to fly out of the realm of what the rest of us are capable of. His lines are becoming faster amid more and more clusters of notes and impossible runs up the neck of his guitar. Still, at 11 minutes in he’s not done yet.

It’s George Benson and it’s 1974.

All of sudden, without any warning, he just starts flying off the handle and doing seriously impossible things with a guitar. His notes are furious, too many too humanly fit into one line and yet there he is, making the rest of us all look bad. Gee, thanks Benson. Even when you think the song is just about done Benson has more to give, more shock and awe to throw your way, and the song ends with a flurry of notes that he peels off as if they were nothing. And the most shocking part of all, the reality that gets me the most, is that he’s doing all this without ever leaving the smooth groove that he set down 10 minutes ago. Holy crap George, give the rest of us a chance.

Wow.

Track List

  1. Take Five – 7:08
  2. Summer Wishes, Winter Dreams – 2:56
  3. My Latin Brother- 6:50
  4. No Sooner Said Than Done – 5:59
  5. Full Compass” – 5:40
  6. The Changing World – 4:53
  7. Take the ‘A’ Train- 4:13
  8. Serbian Blue – 13:03
  9. From Now On – 2:20

 

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