Live Music: George Benson Salutes Nat “King” Cole at the Hollywood Bowl

By Don Heckman

Hollywood, CA. George Benson’s tribute to Nat “King” Cole at the Hollywood Bowl Wednesday night was a major musical effort. He could have simply performed a program of Cole-related songs with a small group comparable to the classic Cole Trio. Instead, Benson and the L.A. Phil elected – as Cole occasionally did – to produce a musical setting with a 50+ piece orchestra and a six voice choir.

The results were well worth the effort. Benson has always had an appealing baritone voice, comfortable in Cole’s vocal range and equally rich with the rhythmic flavoring of jazz. And his affection for Cole’s music was fully apparent in the more than an hour long program he devoted to most of the many highlights in the Cole song catalog.

George Benson
George Benson

Benson opened the set with a characteristically brisk and swinging “Walking My Baby Back Home” before digging into “Nature Boy,” a song strongly associated with Cole, and one of his major hit releases.

Other hits followed: “Too Young,” “Straighten Up and Fly Right,” “I Love You For Sentimental Reasons,” “Mona Lisa,” “Ramblin’ Rose” and more, all of it convincingly true to the Cole musical canon.

Add to that some special items: the too rarely heard, “That Sunday That Summer,” accompanied by the choir and the string section; a beautiful duet with soprano and choir director Janey Clewer on “When I Fall In Love”; equally touching Benson versions of “Mona Lisa” and the inevitable “Unforgettable”; gripping takes on “Route 66” and “Smile”: and a climactic interpretation of the major Cole hit, the Grammy-nominated “Ramblin’ Rose.”

One couldn’t help but sense the presence of Cole’s musical identity in Benson’s readings of each of the songs. Often, the vowels in his lines, as well as his song phrasing itself, seemed deeply affected by Benson’s obvious familiarity with the sound and textures of the original Cole versions.

But Benson is no imitator. Like Cole, he is a major vocal artist, as well as a significant instrumentalist in his own right. And a good portion of the pleasures in this intriguing musical event traced to the performance’s subtext – which was the interfacing between the comparable talents of two gifted creative artists.

It’s worth mentioning, as well, that Benson was superbly served by a stageful of world class musicians, playing superb arrangements by pianist/musical director, Randy Waldman. Like everything else in this memorable evening all the elements surrounding Benson came together with a blend of precise accuracy and stunning musicality.

One suspects Nat “King” would have loved it.

The evening opened with a high spirited performance by the L.A. Philharmonic’s first Creative Chair For Jazz, singer Dianne Reeves.

Every performance by Reeves is a spontaneous musical adventure, and this one was no exception.

Dianne Reeves
Dianne Reeves

She was backed by an impressive ensemble, which prominently featured keyboardists Peter Martin (also Reeves’ Musical Director) and Geoff Keezer, trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire, alto saxophonist Tia Fuller, Brazilian guitarist Romero Lubambo, bassist Reginald Veal and drummer Terreon Gully.

Reeves’ vocal melodies were the lead lines soaring above this remarkable musical collective. And, as always, her phrases reached well beyond the songs she was singing, adding her own spontaneously improvised passages. And she finished her set with one of her frequent inventive touches, creating a spontaneous song in which she musically introduced each of her musicians by name.

The contrasts between Benson and Reeves were many. But there were unique musical similarities as well. Together they provided a perfect climax to the colorful array of musical happenings in the Hollywood Bowl’s 2013 summer jazz season.

* * * * * * * *

Photos by Faith Frenz.

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