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Musical tributes to genuises of ‘note’

17th June 2013   ·   0 Comments

By Geraldine Wyckoff
Contributing Writer

George Benson
Inspiration – A Tribute to
Nat King Cole
(Concord Records)

Fans of vocalist/guitarist George Benson, Nat King Cole and orchestrated music have a lot to like on this newly released, very pleasant CD. It’s a natural for Benson to honor Cole for as he writes in the album’s liner notes, his “vibe has stayed with me from my very first introduction to his music…” The proof of that is heard on the opening cut with an eight-year-old Lil’ Georgie Benson singing Cole’s classic “Mona Lisa,” while accompanying himself on ukulele. Even as a child he brought rather sophisticated nuances to the standard. Benson revisits the song at the end of the disc backed, as he is on most cuts, by the 42-piece Henry Mancini Institute Orchestra with arrangements by the legendary Nelson Riddle. (As an aside, on a local level, hearing the song brings to mind Aaron Neville’s wonderful rendition.)

George Benson | Photo by Demian Roberts

George Benson | Photo by Demian Roberts

Perhaps the most surprising aspect of Benson’s approach to the material is that his vocal phrasing remains so similar to Cole’s instead of interpreting it with his own, distinctive style on tunes like “Walkin’ My Baby Back Home.” Obviously, it was Benson’s aim to pay tribute to Cole in this way. It’s not a distraction, just unexpected.

Benson brings in several guest artists to join him, his rhythm section and the orchestra. First up is trumpeter Wynton Marsalis who quickly jumps in for “Unforgettable” that is given a little Latin tinge. The purity of his horn perfectly matches the pure quality of Benson’s voice and guitar on this rendition of the dreamy love song. It strays a little farther from Cole’s classic than most of the tunes on the CD with more improvisation from Benson and some sharp scatting. It might have been an interesting diversion if Benson and Marsalis had played this together in a combo format minus the orchestra. In that way, it might have suggested the time when Cole sat behind the piano leading the jazz group, the King Cole Trio.

“Route 66” was done this way utilizing Benson and the rhythm section that includes the fine, often complex piano work of Randy Waldman who co-produced the CD and contributed several arrangements. It’s got a nice swing and a solid guitar solo by Benson.

Benson is in beautiful voice on “Nature Boy” and performs the lovely, slowly delivered song, as did Cole, with much emotion and a sense of simplicity. Here, the orchestra quietly adds to the mystery of the mood. The soft, silky texture of Benson’s vocals, the essence of his rendition of “Smile,” remains much the same as that which catapulted the now 70-year-old, 10- time Grammy winner, to fame as a singer following his 1976 triple-platinum CD Breezin’.

Benson performs duos with guests vocalists Idina Menzel on a rather overly sweet “When I Fall in Love” and with Judith Hill on “Too Young” that finds a lighter, more sincere tone.

For the last four years, Benson has been fine-tuning this material while on tour. He certainly became one with the romance and perfection that were signatures of the late great singer and musician as is demonstrated on Inspiration – A Tribute to Nat King Cole.

NOJO at the Joy

The Joy Theater proved itself as a superb venue to hear jazz when the great Cuban pianist Chucho Valdes brought his group to the newly refurbished Canal Street edifice. On Friday, June 21, trumpeter Irvin Mayfield leads his Grammy-winning New Orleans Jazz Orchestra (NOJO) there to celebrate the music of New Orleans jazz masters pianist Ellis Marsalis, saxophonist Harold Battiste and the late drummer James Black all of whom are noted for their compositional skills.

Irvin Mayfield with the New Orleans Jazz Orchestra (NOJO) | Photo by Demian Roberts

Irvin Mayfield with the New Orleans Jazz Orchestra (NOJO) | Photo by Demian Roberts

It’s not a stretch to say that the three were pivotal to modern jazz’s entrance to and continuance on the New Orleans scene. They were innovators who, after hearing the likes of artists such as trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie, jumped onboard the new movement. Marsalis and Battiste even headed to California to hook up with the mighty Ornette Coleman and later as educators influenced hundreds of young jazz players. Battiste, of course, documented some of the hot jazz players in New Orleans during the era on his All For One (AFO) record label. Black was simply a genius whose unique styles behind the drums and instinct for writing music can not be duplicated. His tune, “Magnolia Triangle” has become a standard in New Orleans and a required piece for up-and-coming players.

University of New Orleans music professors, guitarist Steve Masakowski, saxophonist Ed Petersen and pianist Victor Atkins arranged the material for the talent-packed NOJO that is filled with many of this city’s finest musicians. Marsalis and “Blue Dog” artist George Rodrique will be the special guests of the evening. Raffle tickets for Rodrique’s painting “You Can’t Drown Blues” that will be signed by the artist, Mayfield, Marsalis and Battiste will be available at the show.

Doors open at 7 pm and the performance begins at 8 p.m. Reasonably priced tickets are $25 and $35 plus service fee. For more information go to www.thenojo.com.

This article originally published in the June 17, 2013 print edition of The Louisiana Weekly newspaper.

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