CD Review: George Benson “Inspiration: A Tribute to Nat King Cole”

Inspiration: A Tribute To Nat King Cole (Concord Records)

By Brian Arsenault

Two versions of “Mona Lisa,” perhaps Nat King Cole’s most famous song, frame Inspiration: A Tribute to Nat King Cole.

The first, opening the album, was recorded by “Lil” George Benson in 1951 after he won a singing contest at the age of 8.  It seems a prophetic recording now that six decades later he has issued this remarkable tribute album, closing it out with an uncannily Nat-like version of the tune.

George Benson
George Benson

Benson’s phrasing at the start of “new” version of “Mona Lisa” can’t be an accident.  It’s the highest tribute he could give to King Cole.  But there’s brilliance everywhere on the album.

Start with the big band sound of the Henry Mancini Institute Orchestra crashing us into Cole Porter’s “Just One of Those Things.” Wow factor very high.

Follow on with Wynton Marsalis leading us into “Unforgettable” wherein Benson accompanies his remarkable vocal with his equally distinctive guitar work.

And oh yeah, the late Nelson Riddle’s arrangements are all over this album.  Somewhere Ol’ Blue Eyes is smiling.

Want more?  Idina Menzel of Rent and Wicked fame joins Benson for an outstanding duet on “When I Fall in Love” and we’re only five songs into the album. This is the heart breaker/ tear jerker of the CD and Benson’s guitar is just right, as good as his harmonizing with Menzel.

Later, Charlie Chaplin’s “Smile” may also bring a tear and Till Bronner’s trumpet is as perfect as Marsalis’ on “Unforgettable.” After tears, there’s a smile waiting on the album’s version of Cole’s own “Straighten Up and Fly Right” with its wry swing era arrangement.  Benson has his longest guitar solo here and I wouldn’t have minded more of that throughout but there’s nothing really to complain about.

Nat King Cole, like Louis Armstrong, understood that in the 1950s and ‘60s a black artist had to be absolutely non-threatening to fully appeal to white audiences.  But neither sacrificed artistry on that altar.  They just gave a smile and made America love ‘em.

And why not.  The version here of “I’m Gonna Sit Right Down and Write Myself a Letter” has the orchestra playing just so good behind Benson’s smooth, smooth vocal. If it doesn’t bring a smile, you are probably terminally depressed. Benson’s gentle and accomplished approach makes him the perfect guy to do a tribute to Cole.

Riddle’s arrangements are perfect for the orchestra. The soloists like Marsalis and Bronner absolutely get it and fit like a well tailored suit.

There’s an ironic similarity between the career of Cole and Benson.  Cole first came to prominence as a jazz pianist and Benson as a jazz guitarist.  Their stunning vocal skills were hidden for a while but then the world received even greater gifts.

Any song not mentioned in this review is just as good as those that are.  The album’s as close to perfect as humans get.

Still, what I’ll carry with me forever is “Lil” George Benson singing his heart out it 1951.  Thank the musical gods the recording survived.  And that Benson stayed on the planet to give us this as he hit 70.

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Here’s an added  wrinkle:  Benson will be on QVC this evening (Tuesday, May 21)  at 10 p.m. (ET) to introduce the album and make a special offer.

Benson photo by Nanni Zedda courtesy of George Benson.

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