Masters at Work: George Benson and Al Jarreau’s Givin’ It Up

By Daniel Garrett

George Benson and Al Jarreau
Givin’ It Up
Producer: John Burk
Executive Producers: Glen Barros, Noel Lee, and Kevin Lee
Concord Music Group, 2006

George Benson and Al Jarreau’s collaborative album Givin’ It Up is a master class in how mature musicians can be creative, please the public, maintain integrity, and stay fresh. Al Jarreau’s singing shows a renewal of passion, and compels comparison with his best work, which is for me that of We Got By and Glow, while George Benson’s singing suggests a deep vein of feeling: masculine, sure, unchanging, and Benson’s guitar playing is ever distinctive. George Benson, an admirer of guitarists Charlie Christian and Wes Montgomery, and singers such as Nat King Cole, Sam Cooke, Frank Sinatra, and Mario Lanza, and songwriters such as Ray Charles, Stevie Wonder, and Smokey Robinson, has performed a wide spectrum of music (Breezin’, Tenderly, Absolute Benson), as has Al Jarreau. Jarreau and Benson won Grammy Awards for performances on Givin’ It Up: “Best Pop Instrumental Performance” for the song “Mornin’” and “Best Traditional R&B Vocal Performance” with Jill Scott for “God Bless the Child.” In addition, the thirteen songs they have chosen express—with warm conviction, with intelligence—the most humane values, a foundation of ideals for a civilized life, for a civilized culture.

The collection Givin’ It Up’s introductory song, “Breezin’,” is an ode to a light approach to existence, and the song, written by Bobby Womack and recorded years ago by Benson, has new words by Al Jarreau, and begins with Jarreau’s improvised voicings sounding earthy before Jarreau’s welcoming—pleasant, soothing, nearly ethereal—reading of the lyrics. Jarreau’s improvisations—sometimes wordless, sometimes in fragmented groups of phrases—seem a blend of chanting, drumming, and emotional exclamations. (“Jarreau mixes silky smooth vocals with a staccato vocalization throughout ‘Breezin’,’” wrote Joe Montague,, January 31, 2007.) Jarreau, who has been singing since he was four years old, remains a phenomenon. “Breezin’” is a very nice opening for an entertaining album, and is followed by Benson’s rounded, seductive guitar rhythms in “Mornin’,” a song composed by Jarreau, David Foster, and Jay Graydon, and featuring Marion Meadows on saxophone and Michael Broening on piano. (“Benson’s guitar work has always captivated me, and his creamy smooth licks for ‘Mornin’’ are once again spellbinding,” wrote Joe Montague in his review.) In a tribute to Miles Davis and Bishop Tutu of South Africa, “’Long Come Tutu,” constructed by Marcus Miller with Jarreau, Jarreau’s singing is conversational and forceful and capable of leaps that seem as spiritual as they are musical. George Benson’s meditative guitar playing is blues-influenced without being blues-bound, and is a vital part of the song’s interesting arrangement, which has different tempos and makes possible Jarreau’s scat singing. On the song, Jarreau and Benson are accompanied by Herbie Hancock on piano, Patrice Rushen on keyboards, Marcus Miller on bass, and Michael White on drums. The piano notes are like a long, careful pouring of fresh, delicious water, with flashes of movement and nourishment. “’Long Come Tutu” seems a jazz song worthy of the tradition.

Billie Holiday and Arthur Herzog Jr.’s “God Bless the Child” is made more of a musical statement than a social comment with Jill Scott’s confident, sweet singing and Jarreau’s well-paced, nearly folk-tradition vocal support. Patrice Rushen plays piano, Marcus Miller bass, and Vinnie Colaiuta drums. George Benson, who began singing in nightclubs at age eight, shares lead singing on the song, and his tone is serious without being too austere, and eloquent without falsity. Benson’s repetition of the phrase “that’s got his own” adds finality to the song’s expression.

Al Jarreau’s singing sounds invigorated on Darrell Crofts and Jimmy Seals’s “Summer Breeze,” and Jarreau’s harmony on the chorus with Benson is truly complimentary, with Benson making the summoning of passion appear easy. By choosing to sing a song by a famous male duo, Seals and Crofts, Benson and Jarreau affirm male collaboration in a time when many young men fill their lyrics with descriptions of competition and violence between men. The respect Benson and Jarreau feel for each other expands to include others, past and present. The song “Summer Breeze,” which seemed easy listening music when it was new decades ago, becomes in the hands of Benson and Jarreau a tribute to home that is nothing less than standard.

George Benson’s voice lacks the mannerisms one might have expected from someone of his mature age (his voice seems clear, deep, expressive, flawless—I cannot imagine what a George Benson imitation would sound like). Benson’s solo performance of “All I Am,” composed by Rex Rideout and Phillip Jackson, affirms the song narrator’s humility and genuine love. It is the kind of song in which almost anyone could see himself (herself). “Don’t know the right words to say./ I’m not magic./ Don’t hold the world in my hands./ Wish I could fly through the air, like a hero,/ but I’m just someone who loves you./ That’s all I am,” begins the song “All I Am,” which has guitar playing in a Spanish style. Benson’s narrator goes on to wish for riches to share with his lover, but says he has now no riches, but he sees the love he feels as sacred, and reveres his lover, and asks her to see his love. Individual feeling is placed next to materialism and feeling is seen to have worth, the kind of awareness that many people either choose to come to, or are forced to come to, as they live their lives. It is not the awareness of a child or a shallow person. The songs that shout the value of diamonds and gold seem trivial next to this one. “I’ll cherish the moment I saw you./ Life may not give me more than that,” says the man.

John (Stephens) Legend and’s “Ordinary People” is given a mostly instrumental treatment, with Benson’s guitar, Marion Meadows’s saxophone, and Michael Broening’s piano being defining factors, and the song becomes an interlude. A song that admits the difficulties of personality and relationship, “Let It Rain,” is a stellar moment on the album. It has Chris Botti on trumpet, and the singing of Patti Austin and Al Jarreau, singing that is charming, direct, sultry. The legendary Jarreau, whose early career received acclaim from the readers and critics of Cashbox, Downbeat, Performance, and Stereo Review (I recall reading about him in a grade-school publication!), is joined by Patti Austin, a singer whose versatility has made her own success more varied, more delayed, and less legendary than it should be. The performances are so good they inspire anticipation of others interpreting the song, though it is hard to imagine the singers’ equal. (“In some respects, albums like Givin’ It Up function as a personal radio station, with a variety of grooves and guest artists bringing new flavor to each track, while at the same time featuring enough of the same musicians to ensure a certain uniformity of sound,” goes the dateless review in the web pages of Marshall Bowden’s Jazzitude, which I read February 14, 2007, and which called the collection “fun, good grooves, and just the right touch of soul.”) “Let It Rain” is a song not of youth but of experience, not of ignorance but of knowledge, not of license but of responsibility: it is adult; and, for once, adult joy and wisdom are enough.

“Let It Rain,” written by Al Jarreau with Barry Eastmond, begins with a woman (Patti Austin) admitting in song that “I can be so selfish, sad and moody./ I can hear my mama talking to me,/ ‘Girl, you need to change your attitude.’/ I come home tired and I’m rude to you.” She is soon joined by a man (Jarreau) who admits his own shortcomings, singing, “”And I’ve got a little problem with ‘I’m sorry’/ and I say ‘go to hell’ in a hurry,” before he admits his bouts of jealousy. The acknowledgement of error—an admission made more important than pride or will—is an important move in honest communication, in the ambiguities of deep love, love beyond fantasy. Having paid truth for the right to call their intimacy love, having earned the liberty of metaphor, the woman and man, Patti Austin and Al Jarreau, sing of tears like rain, tears with magic powers, midnight showers, tears that purify like holy water.

Soulful singing by Jarreau and Benson, singing of delicacy and power, and a strong rhythm, form the appeal of “Givin’ It Up for Love,” a song about the ambitions sacrificed for love, written by Jarreau and Freddie Ravel. Freddie Ravel plays Moog bass, clavinet, organ, Rhodes, and drums, and Michael O’Neill rhythm guitar. I hear Daryl Hall’s “Every Time You Go Away,” a song previously recorded by the male duo Hall and Oates, with a new depth, thanks to the singing of Jarreau and Benson.

It is fascinating that Miles Davis remains a touchstone for jazz musicians, even for men as accomplished as George Benson and Al Jarreau, who together perform “Four,” created by Davis and Jon Hendricks. (George Benson played with Miles Davis in the 1960s.) With Patrice Rushen on piano, Stanley Clarke on bass, and Vinnie Colaiuta on drums, it is a strong jazz piece, featuring a respectable lyric idea. The lyrics affirm four values—truth, honor, happiness, and love—and singing and swinging about love (music, or creativity, could be noted as an uncounted fifth value).

I can imagine “Don’t Start No Schtuff” being played in a nightclub, the kind of thing to get people snapping their fingers, tapping their feet, and possibly dancing. Composed by Jarreau with Joe Turano, it has energy and rhythm. (“My favorite track, though, was ‘Don’t Start No Schtuff.’ It is clever, engaging, and put me in a happy mood almost immediately,” wrote Ann Stahmer, of the online Audiophile Audition, in a review I saw February 14, 2007.) With Jarreau and Benson sharing vocals and Benson playing guitar, the song has Patrice Rushen on keyboards, Joe Turano on electric piano, Stanley Clarke on bass, and Vinnie Colaiuta on drums.

A favorite song and a surprise guest is not a bad way to close an album, and that George Benson and Al Jarreau do with Sam Cooke’s “Bring It On Home to Me,” which features Paul McCartney performing a committed lead vocal (McCartney’s singing is not as elegant, not as perfect, as that of Benson or Jarreau but his effort is laudable, with more sincerity than I would have foreseen). With their collaboration, George Benson and Al Jarreau have given us new exemplars of beauty, friendship, and honesty.

Daniel Garrett, a New York resident, is a graduate of the New School for Social Research, and the founder of the Cultural Politics Discussion Group at Poets House, and his work has appeared in The African, American Book Review, Art & Antiques, The Audubon Activist, Cinetext.Philo, The Compulsive Reader, Film International, Offscreen, Rain Taxi, The Review of Contemporary Fiction, and World Literature Today.