By Steve Hochman
George Benson sounded a bit incredulous, responding to the request shouted from the audience Friday at the Congo Square Stage on opening day of the 2013 New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival. As if no one had ever asked for that song, the instrumental that was one of his biggest hits of his peak ‘70s pop charts era, and today an enduring smooth jazz classic.
“Now?” he questioned, with wide-eyed surprised.
Well, it was kind of early in the set for something he most likely was saving for later. He’d only played two songs in this headlining appearance, after all. But he’s an accommodating guy, and after one more number he did, indeed, launch into “Breezin’,” and in its several minutes alone encapsulated the striking contrasts that are part and parcel to his artistry. Contrasts, mind you, not conflicts. At least not when he’s at his best, which he often was here.
It starts with his guitar tone, a warm, full, honeyed sound. But then there’s the crisp attack with which he plays, which keeps that honey from getting treacly. It’s been his signature for some five decades now, and exactly what was behind his working with Fender to create his George Benson Hot Rod Deluxe Fender Signature Amp, which made its debut just last fall. The amp was specifically designed to get every nuance, every articulation, every coloration from every note he conjures from his hollow body guitar. Signature sound. Signature amp.
And that song, with its easy and, well, breezy groove, gives him a platform for showing that off to its fullest, and to the fullest of his duality. One passage he’s playing a fluid melody, the next a knotty flurry of note, first the true heir to Wes Montgomery’s populist appeal, then a convention-challenging individualist — as fresh and singular a combination today, a month after he turned 70, as it was when he emerged from Jack McDuff’s band for his first ear-bending turn as a leader nearly 50 years ago.
A couple of songs later he moved another hit up in the set list, again honoring an audience request:
“‘This Masquerade?’” he echoed, after hearing a shout from the crowd for the Leon Russell song that made him a bona fide pop star in 1976. Chuckling, he quipped, “That’s a good one!”
And in that his other notable contrast was spotlighted, as he put the guitar in a co-equal role, if not secondary slot, to his singing. Not that the guitar got short shrift. The familiar middle in which he doubles his soloing with scat vocals is still a delight, but he spiked it with dazzling fretboard flurries, each striking off in a different direction, yet never breaking orbit with the song’s essence. So here he was, the R&B love balladeer and the adventurous jazzman.
That masterful balance marked the shows many high points. He stuck largely to the R&B/smooth jazz side of his music, his five-piece band (led by keyboard ace David Garfield) bringing life and spirit to those ‘70s hits’ vibe, but with the instrumental dips into his deep well of talents always of, and in, the moment.
The highest point came nearing show’s end when he let himself stretch out more fully on one of his other big hits, his jazzed-up “On Broadway.” With the band walking the jazz-funk line, Benson put a sharp, clear focus on his distinctive soloing approach, each note — no matter how fast the next one comes — having its own space, one never stepping on another. Delightful and dazzling. For George Benson at Jazz Fest, it all seemed a breeze.