Al Jarreau and George Benson: A Long Time Coming

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George Benson and Al Jarreau
By Alan Nahigian

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George Benson and Al Jarreau first met at a Warner Bros. Records showcase for staff in Los Angeles. The year was likely 1976, by their estimation, when the elastic-voiced Jarreau jumped from specialty division Reprise to parent Warner Bros. to record 1977’s Look to the Rainbow, while Benson—who had been recording jazz albums for more than a decade on myriad labels—finally broke big with his first Warner release, Breezin’. The label was just beginning to build its reputation as a home for contemporary jazz artists, and a show was scheduled to rally label troops from across the country. “It’s an amazing thing how fast time flies by, because that seems like not too long ago at the Ambassador Hotel,” reminisces George Benson of that first meeting with Jarreau. “It was a very sunny afternoon, we went in and had a very successful showcase and everyone came out raving about how well we did.”

Jarreau, he remembered, “was so different from what I expected. He was a pretty loose kind of guy, a let-it-all-hang-out type of person. I kind of liked that.”

Jarreau also recalls the Ambassador showcase, and says he has long admired Benson’s work, both on guitar and vocals. “George is one of those artists for me whose name kind of flits through your head as you think, ‘Oh, wouldn’t it be wonderful to play with Herbie Hancock, wouldn’t it be wonderful to play with the London Symphony Orchestra, wouldn’t it be wonderful to sing a song with Luciano Pavarotti, wouldn’t it be wonderful to sing something with Barbra Streisand, ooh…’ That kind of wishful thinking,” he says.

Cut to 30 years later, and now the former Warner Bros. labelmates and hit-makers have banded together under the joint auspices of Monster Music and Concord Records to deliver Givin’ It Up, their very first duet set.

The resulting album is a gentle blend of the best of their individual skills, with the presence of each seeming to put a check on any stylistic excesses of the other. Benson, 63, and Jarreau, 66, swing on the elegant Miles Davis composition “Four” featuring Jon Hendricks’ lyrics; inject a modicum of soul into pop ditties “Summer Breeze” and “Every Time You Go Away”; and kid each other on the funky originals “Givin’ It Up for Love” and “Don’t Start No Schtuff.” Throughout, Benson wields his guitar, offering now-familiar electric licks on an instrumental version of John Legend’s “Ordinary People” as well as Jarreau’s 1983 hit “Mornin’,” where the originator offers mouth percussion. On a rendition of Benson’s 1977 hit “Breezin’,” the guitarist strums while Jarreau spins new lyrics in the style of vocal idol Jon Hendricks.

In fact, it was for a Jon Hendricks & Friends album called Freddie Freeloader in 1990 that Benson and Jarreau first recorded together after that initial meeting some 25 years earlier. Memories of that freewheeling, fun session and their mutual love for the musical and lyrical magic of Hendricks seemed to set the tone for Givin’ It Up. “We did it because we both love Jon Hendricks, because he was such a great composer and great creator,” says Benson of that session. Jarreau, who calls Hendricks his inspiration, has long emulated the vocal giant’s talent for vocalese. “I’m mentored by Jon Hendricks in this whole thing of song lyrics for established pieces of music. He’s my guiding spirit every time I do that, going all the way back to ‘Spain,’ Chick Corea’s bebop song,” he says.

The recording features a couple of guest appearances, most notably a seriously bluesy Sir Paul McCartney on a cover of Sam Cooke’s “Bring It On Home to Me.” Philadelphia-bred Jill Scott does a stately “God Bless the Child,” while the ever-game Patti Austin and the atmospheric trumpet of Chris Botti add steam to the sexy “Let It Rain.”

The album also gathers a who’s who of top-notch musicians, including keyboardists Herbie Hancock, Patrice Rushen, Barry Eastmond and Rex Rideout; bassists Stanley Clarke, Marcus Miller and Abraham Laboriel; drummers Vinnie Colaiuta and Gregg Field; saxophonist Marion Meadows; guitarists Ray “The Weeper” Fuller and Dean Parks; and percussionists Paulinho Da Costa and Bashiri Johnson, among other artists.

It may seem odd that these two multiple-Grammy winners had only crossed paths in the studio once before, given the fact that they have both made stylistic forays into pop, R&B and straightahead jazz. But it took time, circumstance and the ambitions of two record company executives, Monster Music head Noel Lee and Concord Records’ executive VP and A&R chief John Burk, to get the two musical titans together for a full-on project.

Benson had previously recorded for the GRP label, where he had butted heads with label brass over the direction of his urban-leaning 2004 album Irreplaceable. While seeking out a new label home, he was approached by his longtime friend Noel Lee, a former musician who founded Monster Cable, the leading manufacturer of high-performance audio cables. “So now he’s making a legitimate stab at being in the record business, so he started Monster Records,” explains Benson. “The thing that did not jibe with me is, ‘Am I going to be the first [artist] to experiment on?’ I didn’t think that should happen.”

Benson was already in the process of signing with Concord Records, so he proposed a hookup. “Concord Records…is a legitimate outlet for my kind of artists and records in general, because they have distribution already intact, so that made a lot of sense,” says the savvy Benson, who signed to the label in early 2006. “And plus, Concord had so much success over the last couple of years with the Ray Charles projects and it was time to give them a shot with where I am in my career now. Then we brought Al Jarreau in. Al came over because I was there, and I convinced him it was going to be an adventure, but a good one because the people loved us so much.”

Jarreau, too, left the Verve fold last year after three albums, 2000’s Tomorrow Today, 2002’s All I Got and 2004’s Accentuate the Positive. “I began to look at Concord as a home because I was leaving my record company where I had been for the last three CDs,” says Jarreau, who expressed disappointment at the reception for the traditional-jazz set Accentuate. “So John Burk, whose brainchild this is, got in touch with George, got in touch with me, and said, ‘Come on you guys, I want you to come over to my office and talk for a little bit.’”

Burk, a veteran producer and musician who had worked with Benson on some ’60s Jack McDuff sessions, was the linchpin for the overwhelmingly successful Ray Charles swan song, Genius Loves Company, as well as the newly released technological marvel Ray Sings, Basie Swings, among other projects. According to Jarreau, Burk made the fusing of their talents seem perfectly natural. “Sometimes that’s all it takes is the conceivable reality, meaning a specific situation that offers the opportunity which gets you beyond wishful thinking, and there it was,” he says.

That first meeting with Burk at the Beverly Hills offices of Concord was both warm and decisive. Said Benson: “That was a very productive first step because we began to set the tone of the CD. Keeping it on the light side, keeping the friendly thing alive because we both have a lot of respect for each other’s accomplishments. We discussed things that have happened to our careers, because coming from the jazz world we took that medium to a whole ’nother level with our approach and our mixing in R&B and pop music and still keeping the integrity intact. It’s very difficult to do but I think both Al and I have had a lot of success doing that.”

It was Burk who suggested that they update a couple of their previous hits, with Jarreau’s “Mornin’” the first to be decided on. When “Breezin’” was mentioned, Jarreau’s wife Susan reminded him that he had begun to write lyrics for the tune years earlier. Other song suggestions came swiftly, to capitalize on both stars’ facility with pop and R&B as well as jazz material.

But with both Jarreau and Benson in heavy demand as performers, the recording of the project had to be retrofitted around their schedules. “My head is [still] spinning,” noted Jarreau of the recording pace. “George and I didn’t stop touring to go do this record, we continued to tour and carve out little pieces of time to get in the studio together and without each other to complete this album. We did most of the work in April. I think it was less than 25 days if we total up the number of days that George and I went to the studio. I’ve never done a CD that quickly! It’s normally 14 to 16 weeks for a record, and I was just beginning to trust that as a process itself!”

The rapid pace of recording set by Burk also meant there was little time to reflect, backtrack or second-guess the performances. “It was too much pressure!” complains Jarreau, who stayed up nights to pen lyrics to six of the 13 tracks. “On the other hand, it pulls out of you some latent, hidden understanding and gut feelings that you’ve been developing over years of doing this kind of work that you begin to trust.”

Another concern for the album was blending two distinct sounds while maintaining a balance between the artists so that the recording truly represented an equal partnership. “That was the biggest concern we had—were our styles compatible? And the only way we could find that out was to go in the studio together,” notes Benson, who says that he adapted his style to many of the arrangements created by Jarreau and keyboardist Larry Williams. “The producer was worried about keeping things equal, and I told him, ‘Don’t worry about it, man.’ Somehow or other there’s a balance. We didn’t necessarily have it thought out that much, but it worked out well in the end.”

The instrumental version of “Mornin’” is a great example of the blending of the explosive guitarist and the inventive vocalist. Jarreau performs vocals, but not lyrics. “My need to sing the lyric was satisfied a long time ago,” laughs the singer, the first artist to receive Grammys in the R&B, pop and jazz categories. “You can hear my whispered ‘good morning’ underneath; I may as well be part of the drum kit. I’m allowing George to lead the way with the guitar and allowing me to be part of the percussive track underneath, just bubbling and adding that sparkle to the track with some vocal percussive stuff.”

Concerned that some of the arrangements would be “too sophisticated,” Benson was still awed by Jarreau’s inventiveness. “I’m a fan of Al’s. I think his character on vocals is so dynamic and so attractive. He’s more of a stylist than I am,” observes Benson. “[Vocally,] I have the energy. I like to jump on things, pounce on things, turn them inside out, beat ’em up, and I learned that from my R&B years. So [the album is] a good contrast by having Al come in with that mysterious approach and setting the tone of things and then me joining him later with the guitar or my vocal. That seemed to be the formula that really made it come alive for me.”

A sense of magic seemed to pervade the recording of Givin’ It Up, says Jarreau, who penned new lyrics for a version of the Miles Davis-Marcus Miller composition “Tutu” from the 1986 album of the same name. He told Miller, who played on the new version, now titled “’Long Come Tutu,” that he did not write the lyrics for the great South African hero Desmond Tutu but about Davis.

“In those later days of Miles’ career he recorded less and less, and there we were waiting for the next Miles statement,” says Jarreau of his lyrics for the tune. “But it works for a people waiting for a leader, like a Mandela or a Tutu. So that’s the hand of God, reaching in and guiding my thinking in such an open way to create a message that works in both instances. Magic.”

Other moments of magic included getting the likes of Davis cohort Herbie Hancock to perform on “’Long Come Tutu” and bassist extraordinaire Stanley Clarke to contribute to “Four.” Adds Jarreau, “There’s a design for this project that goes beyond me and George’s simple, mortal plans. It felt to me like something beyond us was guiding this process.”

For instance, the appearance of Paul McCartney during a recording session seemed like a gift from the blue. The former Beatle was also recording at the Hollywood complex that was once the A&M Records lot (and now home to Jim Henson’s Muppets production company) and wound up singing the lead on “Bring It On Home to Me.”

McCartney and Benson had been acquainted since Benson released The Other Side of Abbey Road in 1969. So when the lauded Brit popped in to say hello, all the musicians—including Hancock and Miller—grew quiet while Benson sprang into action.

“I said, ‘Paul, you know this song don’t you? You sure you don’t want to take a piece of this, man?’ He said, ‘George, you know I’m recording right now and I’ll be free in a day or so and I’ll come back and we’ll talk about it.’ And I figured, he may just do that,” recalls Benson. “Nobody else believed that he would, but two days later he came back in the studio, and I said, ‘Put that song up, man!’ And he just dove right in with all fours and off the cuff he mesmerized everybody with his approach to the song.”

Both Benson and Jarreau wax rhapsodic about each other’s skills, but more than simply exercising mutual admiration, the two veterans seem to have been creatively reinvigorated by the recording and the ensuing national tour that took them across the country in July and August with opening act Raul Midon. The concerts, which found them performing together and separately, changed Benson’s thinking about how a stage show should be. “It was one of the joys of the last several years I’ve been on the road,” says the guitarist.

“This got me a chance to see Al’s personality up close and see his methods, which are quite interesting,” says Benson, who believes he and Jarreau have become much better friends. “He loves people, and I think that’s the reason why he’s so successful. He really has a love for his audience, and he’s always trying to keep them awake by doing things they don’t expect him to do.”

Jarreau agrees that the experience was enlightening. “It made it wonderful, even stronger and faster and deeper and thicker and wider and higher,” he says of their friendship. “We love each other all the more. I think we both have a little something more in our reservoirs that we will pull from as singers and players thanks to this experience.”

Benson says he’s looking forward to the second leg of their tour in 2007, and while he was happy with the mellow balance between himself and Jarreau, he can’t help wishing for an all-out competition someday. “It wasn’t a battle,” he says of Givin’ It Up. “It was not a contest to see which one of us can outshine the other. But in the future I think we’re gonna do a jam session just to see who can blow who away! Just for the heck of it!”

Originally published in December 2006

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