George Benson – Body Talk
(Speakers Corner/CTI 6033. LP review by Andrew Cartmel)
Following on the furry heels of White Rabbit and recorded in 1973, Body Talk was George Benson’s sixth CTI album (counting the A&M issues), and by now the guitarist’s recordings for Creed Taylor had settled into a smooth and relatively lucrative groove — although nothing like the enormous commercial success that was to come with Benson’s move to Warner Bros, his subsequent album Breezin’ and his vocal rendition of This Masquerade (a top ten hit and a Grammy winner) — Breezin’ was the first jazz album to go platinum.
But it’s Benson’s sequence of albums for Creed Taylor Incorporated which arguably represent the cream of his work, and are indisputably the purest in terms of jazz. They are also all consistently and beautifully engineered — by Rudy Van Gelder at his Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey studios. This superb sonic quality was a feature which at the time was all too often obscured by flimsy vinyl and poor manufacture. This makes the outstanding new release from Speakers Corner, beautifully pressed on 180g vinyl, all the more valuable. Body Talk has never sounded better. (Well, maybe on the master tapes.)
Musically Benson’s run of CTI albums were highly diverse. In terms of contributing players Ron Carter is almost the only consistent element, having been Benson’s bassist of choice since 1969 and The Other Side of Abbey Road. Drummer Jack DeJohnette, who had brought a thundering, angular modernism to Bill Evans’s trio, had come on board for Beyond the Blue Horizon in 1971 but subsequently sat out on White Rabbit that same year. Body Talk sees DeJohnette back and Carter still firmly in place.
The blues Dance has a Herbie Hancock sound, perhaps deliberately invoking Dolphin Dance (Hancock was another illustrious Benson sideman). Benson makes a mission statement with his virtuoso plucking here. It’s his composition, and he occupies virtually all the solo space with players of the calibre of Harold Mabern on electric piano, Gary King, electric bass and Earl Klugh, guitar, all relegated to rhythm and comping.
When Love Has Grown has a fuller, more joyous and vibrant feel. Klugh fattens the guitar lines and takes his own solo. Harold Mabern also has a chance to shine. But Benson remains emphatically the star of this show. Mabern is given considerably more elbow room, as is Ron Carter, on Plum where they shepherd in a funkier, hipper and darker feel with Benson’s silvery guitar against the black velvet backdrop provided by a larger ensemble. The horn section consists of Jon Faddis, Waymon Reed and John Gatchell on trumpet and flugelhorn and Gerald Chamberlain and Dick Griffin on trombone.
It becomes rapidly clear why Body Talk is the title track. Introduced with an insistent, foot-shuffling beat and an addictive, hummable riff it could easily ignite any dance floor. Benson’s guitar sculpts a melodic mountain range over the lush plateau of rhythm provided by his ensemble. Percussionist Mobuto slaps cascading congas while DeJohnette provides a hummingbird blur of cymbals. The order of the day is elegant excitement. You can feel your heartbeat begin to chase the guitar line. Frank Foster’s tenor sax is sour, soulful and poignant, answered by Memphis Horns-style brass stabs, all tastefully underpinning Benson (the arrangements are by Pee Wee Ellis).
Top Of The World is an ironic title since this track exerts a sharp, wistful, melancholy. Starting as a lonely guitar exploration, it’s soon enriched by DeJohnette’s drums and Mabern’s electric piano, picking up tempo and gaining complexity, but never losing that essential sadness. The tune moves up another level as the sax and horns join in, providing a powerful James Brown soul feel to the settings for Benson’s guitar, which always retains primacy. Impressive and moving, and a testament to Pee Wee Ellis’s contribution as arranger and conductor (and it isn’t surprising to learn that Ellis was a lynchpin of James Brown’s band in the 1960s).
George Benson’s later work – all smooth jazz stylings, mellow vocals and tweetie-bird arrangements – is what he is best known for, and this virtuosic, harder-edged album from his prime period is a very welcome treat, both musically and in terms of sound quality. Perhaps Speakers Corner would like to follow up with White Rabbit?
Absolutely! I saw Benson live in his prime with the CTI All Stars and he was a force to be reckoned with. After this, he took the path of Nat “King” Cole, who was the foremost jazz pianist in the nation in the 1940s but went on to become a pop crooner. He is still one of my favorite jazz guitarists, along with Grant Green, Wes Montgomery and Pat Martino.