Those who have written George Benson off for his blatant stabs at commercialism during the ’80s had better pay attention to Guitar Man. The chopsmeister of yore is back in no uncertain terms with this one, as the title suggests. While it may not be on the level of his early six-string manifestos of the mid-’60s, there are plenty of fretboard pyrotechnics here for guitar aficionados to savor.
Accompanied by pianist Joe Sample, rising upright bass star Ben Williams, drummer Harvey Mason (who played on Benson’s 1976 blockbuster, Breezin’) and keyboardist-musical director-producer David Garfield, Benson puts his stamp on a straightahead quartet version of “Paper Moon,” along with a romping rendition of the Champs’ instrumental hit “Tequila”—which his personal hero and friend Wes Montgomery covered in 1966—and a take on the Beatles’ “I Want to Hold Your Hand” that is drenched with strings but full of fretboard burn. He turns in a deft cover of “Don’t Know Why,” Norah Jones’ mega-hit from 2002, and offers a poignant reading of the romantic ballad forever associated with Johnny Hartman, “My One and Only Love.” His soothing take on Stevie Wonder’s “My Cherie Amour” is replete with his trademark scat-and-play unison flights.
For a change of pace there’s a revealing duet rendition of the romantic nugget “Since I Fell for You,” in which Benson’s golden voice is accompanied only by pianist Garfield. Guitar fans will dig Benson’s two virtuosic turns on solo nylon-string acoustic guitar: the traditional Irish number “Danny Boy,” which has him engaging in some Celtic-styled pull-offs and drones as a way of imitating the bagpipes, and his unaccompanied take on “Tenderly,” which includes masterful chord-melody playing. Benson also opens John Coltrane’s “Naima” with a stunning minute-and-a-half solo guitar intro before the quartet settles into that revered ballad. Aside from some token stabs at smooth jazz (like Rod Temperton’s “The Lady in My Life”), the 68-year-old guitarist bears down here in heroic fashion.