Inspiration: A Tribute to Nat King Cole
Artiste: George Benson
Genre: Evergreens/ jazz
BACK in college in 1982, George Benson was one of my earliest introductions to jazz-pop, along with Grover Washington Jr and Chuck Mangione. Though I got into more traditional jazz soon enough, Benson’s fluid guitaring and distinct style of vocal scatting – singing nonsensical syllables – always attracted me. To this day, the songs ‘The Greatest Love Of All’, ‘On Broadway’, ‘Breezin’, ‘This Masquerade’ and ‘Give Me The Night’ remain favourites.
Thus, it was great to hear Benson had recorded a tribute album to the legendary Nat King Cole, one of the most influential voices of the 20th century. Though this album was released last June, I got to check it only recently. Here, Benson takes 12 numbers popularised by Nat, and while retaining the basic vocal melody, adds his own touch with his lush arrangements, guitar interludes and scatting parts.
Interestingly, Benson begins the album with an old recording of his singing a sample from the hit ‘Mona Lisa’ when he was an eight-year-old. A full-length version of the same song is sung by the adult Benson to conclude the album, and the lines “Are you warm, are you real, Mona Lisa, or just a cold and lonely, lovely work of art” sound as riveting as they did when sung by Nat in 1950.
The album’s second song is Cole Porter’s 1935 standard ‘One of Those Things’, which has been covered by numerous artistes, Typically old-school arrangements and a trademark Benson scat are the highlights of this. This is followed by Nat’s hugely famous ‘Unforgettable’, which has a marvellous trumpet stretch by guest artiste Wynton Marsalis, and typically simple lines like, “Unforgettable that’s what you are, unforgettable though near or far.”
Other well-known songs include ‘Route 66’, penned by Bobby Troup and featuring a sprightly piano by Randy Waldman, and Eden Ahbez’s ‘Nature Boy’, known for its lines, “The greatest thing you’ll ever learn, is just to love and be loved in return.”
There’s an absolute beauty in ‘Smile’, whose tune was written by Charlie Chaplin for his 1936 film Modern Times, but was given lyrics much later by John Turner and Geoffrey Parsons. The song, with the vocals, was popularised by Nat, and Benson’s version features an intoxicating trumpet by Till Bronner.
Of the other tracks, ‘Straight Up and Fly Right’, a peppy number co-written by Nat, is played with a funky feel. ‘Ballerina’, ‘Walking My Baby’ and ‘I’m Gonna Sit Down and Write Myself a Letter’ retain their old-world charm.
While Benson does solo vocals on most tracks, two duets add value. ‘When I Fall In Love’ features singer Idina Menzel, and has the lines “When I fall in love, it’ll be forever, or I’ll never fall in love.” For the trivia fans, it was originally a big hit for Doris Day, though Nat’s version was successful too. Finally, ‘Too Young’ with singer Judith Hill brims with nostalgia.
Throughout, Benson keeps the feel of the songs rich, without compromising on their simplicity. As a tribute, this is great listening, and good exposure to those who haven’t grown up on the genius of Nat King Cole.
RATING SCALE: * Poor; ** Average; *** Good; **** Excellent; ***** Simply outstanding