George Benson - lead guitar, vocals; Ronnie Foster - keyboards; Jorge Dalto - piano; Stanley Banks - electric bass; Marvin Chapell - drums; David Diggs - percussion; Special guest:; Milt Jackson - vibes
At the time of this Newport Jazz Festival appearance, Benson was still a year away from his breakthrough triple-platinum smash hit, Breezin', which was produced by Tommy LiPuma and released on Warner Bros. in 1976. Still signed to Creed Taylor's CTI label, Benson performed material from Bad Benson, his successful soul-jazz crossover album released by CTI the previous year. He is accompanied at this Carnegie Hall concert by the two-keyboard tandem of Ronnie Foster and Jorge Dalto, electric bassist Stanley Banks (who still tours with Benson to this day), drummer Marvin Chapell and percussionist David Diggs. Jazz vibraphone legend Milt Jackson, a bebop pioneer and charter member of the Modern Jazz Quartet, appears as a special guest on three tracks.
Benson's unparalleled chops are in full effect throughout this high-powered set. They open on an energized note with the clavinet-fueled rendition of an unnamed Latin flavored jam that has the great guitarist flowing effortlessly over the bar-line with remarkable drive and mind-blowing facility. All of Benson's jaw-dropping six-string signatures are evident on this astounding opening showcase. Next up is a faithful rendition of Paul Desmond's "Take Five," a tune which became so closely associated with the Dave Brubeck Quartet and which launched an entire generation of jazz fans. Benson again is relentless aggressive on this anthemic jazz standard, pulling no punches while laying out guitar aficionados with his campaign of six-string shock and awe. Although he had introduced a version of this popular jazz staple on 1974's Bad Benson and also recorded it on his In Concert-Carnegie Hall, recorded in January of 1975, this dynamic live version is far more visceral, brimming with Benson's sizzling fretboard abandon and further ignited by Foster's outre excursions on an arsenal of heavily-effected keyboards. Benson's lone vocal number of this Carnegie set comes on a soulful rendition of Lalo Schifrin's "Down Here on the Ground," a tune previously covered in instrumental versions by Benson's role models Grant Green and Wes Montgomery and which he would later record on 1978's Grammy-winning Weekend in L.A.
Next up is "My Latin Brother," a funky Benson original introduced on Bad Benson and which perfectly showcases his mind-boggling chops before this Carnegie crowd. Just a couple years later, in the wake of the overwhelming success of "This Masquerade" from Breezin', Benson would be singing more and playing decidedly less on his instrument than he showcases here. Special guest Milt Jackson then takes the stage to join Benson on some serious blowing on John Coltrane's modal burner "Impressions," which shows the great guitarist at his most unfettered and adventurous best. The beautiful Johnny Mandel ballad "The Shadow of Your Smile" is a fitting showcase for Jackson's shimmering vibes work. They conclude the set on an upbeat note with a swinging rendition of Billy Strayhorn's "Take the A Train," a staple of the Duke Ellington band since 1940. Benson would subsequently make numerous Newport Jazz Festival appearances, including one memorable evening in 1989 when he participated in a Benny Goodman tribute, playing Charlie Christian parts alongside longtime Goodman colleague Lionel Hampton. George Wein continues to call on Benson for his revitalized Newport Jazz Festival…whenever he can afford him.
Born in Pittsburgh on March 22, 1943, the multi-Grammy-winning artist was a child prodigy who started out singing at age eight and recorded two singles for RCA by age 11. Inspired by guitar greats Charlie Christian and Wes Montgomery, he became interested in jazz and by 1962 was playing in organist Jack McDuff's soul-jazz quartet. He recorded his first album as a leader in 1964 (The New Boss Guitar of George Benson with the Jack McDuff Quartet) and formed his first group in 1965 (with organist Lonnie Smith, baritone saxophonist Ronnie Cuber and drummer Jimmy Lovelace), later releasing It's Uptown on the Columbia label (produced by super talent scout John Hammond, who had discovered such great artists as Charlie Christian, Billie Holiday, Aretha Franklin and Bob Dylan).
Benson switched to the Verve label in 1967 and recorded on Miles Davis' Miles in the Sky in 1968, the year he began working with producer Creed Taylor and arranger Don Sebesky on the A&M label (1968's Shape of Things to Come, 1969's Tell It Like It Is and 1970's Beatles tribute, The Other Side of Abbey Road). Following a string of successful recordings on Creed Taylor's CTI label (1971's Beyond the Blue Horizon, 1972's White Rabbit, 1973's Body Talk, 1974's Bad Benson and 1975's Good King Bad), Benson was recruited to Warner Bros. by Tommy LiPuma, who produced Breezin', which became a Top Ten hit on the strength of its sole vocal track, Leon Russell's "This Masquerade." Benson followed with a string of commercial hit albums through the '70s, '80s and '90s with occasional forays into jazz, notably 1989's Tenderly (featuring pianist McCoy Tyner and bassist Ron Carter) and 1990's Big Boss Band (with the Count Basie Orchestra). His most recent release is Guitar Man, a potent six-string manifesto released on the Concord Jazz label in 2011 that includes some examples of his virtuosic unaccompanied guitar work. (Bill Milkowski)