*About four years ago, I had the privilege of attending a rehearsal and performance at the Montreal Jazz Festival of George Benson‘s “Tribute to Nat King Cole.” I knew immediately that this music needed to be captured on record. George told me at the time, just performing with a full orchestra, doing the music of Nat King Cole was “unforgettable,” and recording it, would be a dream come true.
Now, four years later, George Benson’s dream has become a reality with the release of: Inspiration: A Tribute to Nat King Cole. This recording is one of the most meaningful of Benson’s career and is a testament to the spirit of Cole’s timeless body of work. Benson’s heartfelt renditions of some of Cole’s greatest songs with Nelson Riddle arrangements and the 42-piece Henry Mancini Institute Orchestra are complemented by duets with Tony Award winner Idina Menzel and rising star Judith Hill, along with a special collaboration with Wynton Marsalis.
Speaking on recording the album Benson says, “I felt every moment of it. You can’t put together a record like this without putting your heart into it. I got that from Nat King Cole. He put his heart into everything he did.”
The careers of Benson and Cole share a similar arc, both establishing themselves first as highly respected instrumentalists before skyrocketing to crossover success once they began sharing their unforgettable voices with the world. Better known as a jazz pianist first, Nat King Cole’s major breakthrough came in 1943 when he added his melting baritone voice to “Straighten Up and Fly Right,” coincidentally the same year of George Benson’s birth. Benson, who had a well-established career as one of the world’s top jazz guitarists, made his major break in the pop world by singing “This Masquerade” and subsequently had the first jazz album to go platinum with Breezin. Yet, both of these remarkable artists remained true to their jazz roots as this album revels with 12 covers of Cole’s most endearing repertoire.
As a dream project for Benson, this album is a love letter to Cole and a tribute in gratitude for his deep musical inspiration. It also demonstrates how uniquely suited Benson is to recreate and interpret these timeless treasures. Highlights on the album include an adaptation of Nelson Riddle’s arrangement of “Just One of Those Things,” with a signature Benson vocal/guitar scat solo, and Benson’s reading of the original chart of “Nature Boy,” which he previously interpreted and made and a pop hit in the late 70’s. Benson masterfully covers the classic “Smile,” with German jazz musician Till Brönner on trumpet. The song, originally written by Charlie Chaplin for his 1936 film “Modern Times,” was first sung by Cole in 1954 when John Turner and Geoffrey Parsons added lyrics. The album also contains stunning duets with Idina Menzel on “When I Fall In Love,” and Judith Hill on “Too Young,” as well the incomparable trumpet work of Wynton Marsalis on a fresh new arrangement of “Unforgettable.”
The album begins with a rare recording of “Little Georgie Benson” (age 8) singing “Mona Lisa” which stemmed from a singing contest Benson won and the award was the opportunity to record a song at a recording studio. Benson began singing Nat King Cole songs as a child in Pittsburgh and this recording not only shows his incredible range and musicality at the time but also the depth of admiration Benson has had for Cole from such a young age.
Perhaps best know for his contemporary popular music – in multiple genres, Benson has become as iconic in music history as his musical hero Nat King Cole. Creating more than 30 recordings as a leader, winning ten Grammy Awards as well as becoming a NEA Jazz Master, George Benson has used his jazz roots as the foundation for an engaging mix of pop, R&B and other shades that add up to a style that appeals to a broad mainstream audience. Along the way, he has also established himself as a formidable singer – one whose biggest career hits have showcased his vocals as well as his guitar chops. Benson continues to astound and engage audiences taking his creative expression to new heights. A soulful interpretation, Inspiration: A Tribute to Nat King Cole is an exemplary work of art, giving reverence to the legacy of jazz and a fitting tribute to an American icon.
Watch George Benson record/perform his mini-tribute to Nat King Cole
Lois Gilbert is managing director of JazzCorner.com.