Superstar collaborations are risky. The trappings of stardom can eclipse the perception of artistry. Years of exposure to multimedia hype and disappointing “event releases” have left us resistant to any implication that we should trot out our loyalty based on previous successes and lists of awards won. Al Jarreau stepped out of that high-gloss shadow with his brilliant but under-promoted Accentuate The Positive. On Givin’ It Up George Benson joins him right back where they belong. They are consummate artists, inventive and original musicians. Take the chemistry of this collaboration, add a group of supporting musicians who are some of the most influential figures in four decades of contemporary jazz, mix it up in the studio, and get ready for the ride of your life. This album delivers a series of performances that will stand as some of the brightest in both Benson’s and Jarreau’s already impressive careers.
The song selection looks like it’s all over the road but it comes together seamlessly. It’s the group of musicians who play on most of the tracks that keeps it so cohesive. Every song, whether it's origins or pop, rock, R&B, or jazz, showcases their improvisational skills. Whether it’s just for a moment or for the duration of the song, somebody always nails it. It’s the core group of Jarreau, Benson, Marcus Miller, Herbie Hancock, Patrice Rushen, and Vinnie Colaiuta urging each other deeper into such inspired playing, joined by Marion Meadows, Chris Botti, Patti Austin, Jill Scott, Barry Eastmond, Michael White, Abraham Laboriel, Ray Fuller, Michael Broening and some familiar faces from Jarreau’s touring bands – Larry Williams, Freddie Ravel, Ricky Lawson, and Joe Turano. There are instrumental passages that sneak up on you, subtle fills between the vocals that make you go “wow!” and extended jazz jams - most notably from Hancock and Rushen on keyboards and Clarke and Miller on bass. Then there’s Paul McCartney who came in and within two takes of one song proved he’s got far more to offer than boomer nostalgia.
What a set of songs! The trend has been to whittle it down to 8-10 songs on a CD. They give you 13! The obvious place to start is with each headliner’s take on one of the others’ classic hits. This updated version of “Breezin’” features lyrics added by Jarreau, who scats his way into an airy and slightly husky vocal that just embraces you. The reinvention of this song shifts the focus from the original guitar riff hook to the verse, with Benson adding a completely different guitar lead behind him. “Mornin’” has Jarreau’s vocal percussion underscoring Benson’s rhythmic shift on the melody. Both these artists said they wanted to add their own spin to some familiar favorites. Their performances and Larry Williams’ arrangements on “Every Time You Go Away” and “Summer Breeze” achieve just that. They bring such new life to these songs that they sound fresh even to someone like me who played the originals on the radio long past the point of burnout. And just when you’ve settled into the comforting atmosphere of “Summer Breeze,” Benson cuts loose with one of his most thrilling solos. “Tutu” is astonishing. Originally recorded by Miles Davis and Miller, this version has the same atmospherics without trying to be imitative. Miller’s bass echoes Jarreau’s lead vocal (or is it vice versa!), Benson throws down a scorching lead then threads perfect notes and chords throughout while Hancock simply goes off! “Four,” the Miles Davis classic that Jon Hendricks added lyrics to, was an obvious choice - a jazzy duet with significant lyrics in an acoustic combo setting. Jill Scott’s emotive voice glides over the lyrics of “God Bless The Child” - a duet with Benson that puts a contemporary spin on a song that seems particularly relevant at this point in time.
Intelligently written love songs from an adult perspective are a rarity, and there are two gems in this set. Jarreau’s “Let It Rain,” is about reconciliation and rekindling of a long time love. It has him in musical conversation with Patti Austin. Together they turn the song into a story with their voices meshing perfectly. Benson’s “All I Am,” manages to be romantically sincere without crossing the line into sappiness. It has the kind of universal appeal that used to guarantee multi-format airplay and lots of spins on dedication shows.
Any time you put Benson and Jarreau in the same room fun stuff is going to happen. The title track is loose, funky and irresistibly catchy, two old friends talkin' 'bout life and love. There's a lot of insight inside "Don't Start No Stuff"s playful grooves. It's freeform word play with attitude and some social commentary thrown in between scatting, soloing, laughter and a classic Benson vocalese/guitar run. "Bring It On Home To Me" is a rousing wrap-up with Paul McCartney just wailing on the lead vocal, Benson and Jarreau joining in, and a gospel flavored call and response at the end that captures the spirit of fun and musical friendship that is present throughout this project.
Givin’ It Up is a project caught in a creative whirlwind. Benson, Jarreau and producer John Burk began discussions early this year. By April they were in the studio working to complete the sessions before they headed out for their respective summer tours. When you don’t have time to overthink everything the process becomes more intuitive. There's a looseness and live vibe that pervades these tracks. These guys are having fun. There are shouts of encouragement and affirmation, off-the-cuff dueling scats, conversational throw-downs and one-ups at the end of songs and "mmm-mmm's" and "oh yeah!'s" almost hidden in the mixes that follow some particularly fierce soloing. It sounds so live, real, and uncontrived that you feel like you're a part of it when you turn the sound loud or put the headphones on. If you really want to get in the middle of it Monster Music has made a SuperDisc available that allows listeners to listen to it in High Definition Surround sound with options that will make you feel like you are sitting on the front row or even better, in the studio with the band.
In the end, though, this is what matters most: When I was in the process of scheduling the Jarreau interview I knew that I might have to take a long lunch break and run home to do it! I gave my supervisor a copy of Givin’ It Up as both a bribe and a chance to hear why I was going to have to run off for an hour or two. The next day he practically ran up to me at the door and started raving about it. His whole face lit up - "I love it! I just put it on and it takes me away!" Then the next day he said the same thing! That is the essence of this album. It will hit you between the ears and go straight for the heart. This is music that will open the windows and doors and just take you away.
See the photo gallery and watch a video from the recording sessions at www.monstermusic.com
- Shannon West