GEORGE BENSON IN BAKU

George Benson first performed on stage as a singer; he was 10 years old when he recorded his first single, “She Makes Me Mad”. Some years later, this black wunderkind formed his own vocal group; they played rhythm and blues. Around the same time he began to take

George Benson

an interest in the guitar and, later, he started to sing some of his own compositions while playing guitar with the leading jazzmen of the time. From 1962-65 he played in the Jack McDuff Quartet. A few years later, young George’s efforts on his ‘second string’ were honoured by concert audiences and the titans of the record industry. In the mid 1960s he signed a contract with the renowned ‘A & M’ company, and released three records. It was already apparent in those years that Benson was a real innovator. This important quality was soon reflected in the fusion-style, which remains popular. The album ‘Breezin’’, recorded in 1976, is still regarded as a landmark. This album, which went platinum, is still one of the best-selling records in jazz history.

Later, Benson was one of the first to bring new directions to music. But he did not stay with one style for very long. Despite gaining a reputation as a jazz instrumentalist, he was not indifferent towards experimentation with electronic instruments and he interpreted popular songs in the styles of soul, funk and even rock. He had a high reputation as a sideman for the stars of jazz. He played, for example, on solo projects by Miles Davis, Ron Carter, Herbie Hancock and others. At the turn of the 1970s and 1980s, Benson was devoting more attention to pop singing but, in the early 1990s, he returned to classic jazz standards and acoustic playing. His work in that period was memorably associated with the Count Basie band and, later, with the formation of his own big band, “The Big Boss Band”. At first sight, it may be hoped that all is returning to its original place, but no one could say in which direction this musician’s talent would develop. On his recently-recorded album, “Absolute Benson”, the ‘Big Boss’ (his nickname since the start of his career) offers a synthesis of jazz, rhythm and blues, pop and funk.

Benson’s endless moves from Swing and Bop to Jazz-Rock and Smooth Jazz, do not seem to be the torture of an artist seeking his own direction. Although Benson expends his energies in different genres, he always remains his own man – a unique improviser, a perfect vocalist and talented instrumentalist. ‘Big Boss’ has been the deserved recipient of two Grammy Awards for ‘Best Album’ and for ‘Best Rhythm and Blues Composition’. The number of awards he has received compete with the number of albums released (more than

George Benson

50) and his fans are numbered in millions. Naturally, there are many of his admirers in our country, too.

At last came the day long-awaited by certain generations of Bakuvians. This was their chance to see and hear George Benson, the virtuoso maestro recognised as the uncrowned king of the guitar. This meeting with his Baku-based fans, with a programme of both familiar and new works, was one stop on a world tour; his itinerary included cities of the former USSR.

By the way, Benson was first introduced to Russian society by Araz Agalarov. The latter invited Benson to the opening of his ‘Crocus City’ shopping mall.

Among those gathering in the foyer of the Heydar Aliyev Palace before the concert were Ministers, members of the Milli Majlis,
government clerks, business people and the show business elite. Some remembered with pride how, in times of shortages, they had managed to obtain his records, especially the Breezin’ album (this album, released in 1976, was the peak of his career and is now a collector’s item) and some shared their impressions of the maestro’s concerts in Moscow, Istanbul and Tbilisi.

The people of different generations who make up the vast number of his fans know well Benson’s popular repertoire, formed over the years. It is no coincidence that Benson has been nominated 10 times in different categories for Grammy Awards. This musician with millions of followers has received awards which rival in number his album releases (he has more than 50 discs to his credit).

There was no special need to introduce George Benson to the Baku audience. The event followed a ‘simple Baku script’: first a backstage request for people to turn off their mobile phones and then a warning not to take photographs. The electric band came on, followed by the maestro himself with his guitar, making a speedy entrance to the front of the stage. The concert began, and how!...

The audience acclaimed Benson with shouts of ‘Bravo!’ It was almost as if the two hour concert had finished. Benson’s familiar melodies evoked feelings of nostalgia and were played in unison (scat vocal and strings), but with new rhythms and arrangements.

George Benson

There was one constant – love. Benson, addressing the audience directly, sang with passion and this theme formed the plot line of the concert. They played his composition, ‘Give Me the Night’ and his disco hit, ‘This Masquerade’ and nostalgia became ecstasy. We heard interpretations of soul and funk, and occasional bursts of rock. Swing and bop, jazz-rock and smooth jazz were also played. I was happy; it was worth going to the concert for that alone because, even twenty five years ago, this music entranced my soul. Each of the musicians playing in the concert has played and recorded with the world’s renowned jazzmen and each was given a ‘window’ for a solo improvisation. During Benson’s costume change, the bass guitarist introduced the musicians to the audience, and this was a show in itself.

For the first half of the concert, the maestro wore black, a gold chain around his neck, a gold bracelet on his wrist and expensive rings on his fingers. His accessories glimmered in the projector lights and did not go unnoticed in the semi-darkness by an audience ender the magical spell of blues ballads and country music. Benson’s music, emerging from the strings of his gold-plated guitar, created a special atmosphere in the hall.

This had a unique, meditative impact on the experienced Baku audience. For the second half, Benson wore white. By this time, the audience were unable to stay in their seats: most felt they were on a dance floor. It seemed that this was the build up to the finale: at the end of the concert, to the accompaniment of the musicians and to shouts of ‘Encore!’ the maestro returned to the front of the stage as a “black-skinned, Seventh Day Baptist preacher” and stretched out his gold-bedecked hand to the audience in greeting.

The melee which followed was impossible to put into words: people dreaming of shaking their idol’s hand formed quite a crowd. Even members of the fair sex could hardly restrain themselves from kissing the virtuoso’s hand. Security, who understood that it could get out of hand, intervened in time and no unpleasantness occurred. People left the palace with good impressions. One of the amazing things about the concert was that, although Benson is almost sixty years old, he is still experimenting with his show programme, testing himself in different genres while maintaining his speciality as unique improviser, perfect vocalist and bright instrumentalist. I think he is one of the last giants of world popular culture, after Frank Sinatra and Michael Jackson.

Ulvi Mehdi