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CD: Sax Master

"George Benson has sustained a reputation as one of Detroit's most gifted saxophonists for over 50 years. A product of the Detroit Public School system, Benson, the oldest of nine children, is the only one among his siblings who chose music as a profession. He was born in Detroit on February 26, 1929.

While still in elementary school, George spied his late uncle's C-melody saxophone and band uniform in the family attic one day, and was impressed with the flashy uniform and wanted to wear it. His parents told him that he had to learn the saxophone first. He began to take lessons through school, and once his father saw George was serious about learning to play, he bought him an alto to replace the outmoded C-melody. By his thirteenth birthday, George was a proficient reader and played regularly in the school band. He was determined to earn his living as a musician, and at the age of 26, he got the opportunity to rehearse with a twelve-piece band led by "Geechie" Robinson at the Twelve Horsemen club. Benson's talent was obvious to his fellow bandsmen and he was accepted as a musician, a heady feeling for the 16 year old. He joined the American Federation of Musicians Local 5 in 1945 and quickly established a foothold in the competitive Detroit scene.



Benson's early inspirations were Johnny Hodges and Benny Carter, each of whom had a beautiful and unique sound; their imprint is still discernible in his balland approach.


Benson developed his skills as a soloist while playing with trumpeter/vocalist King Porter at the Royal Blue Bar in 1950. Porter's group featured a horn-driven brand of rhythm and blues, and although the musicians preferred to play jazz, the fun-loving crowd demanded blues. Benson learned to "walk the bar" while playing, which he found was an easy way to supplement his bare bones sideman's salary. "All the guys used to do that sort of thing; people would fill up the horn with money," George remembers.


 

Benson is a passionate player and he means every note.

 



George was drafted in 1951 and spent two years stationed in Hawaii in the 64th Army Headquarters band sitting alongside tenor saxophonist Johnny Griffin. He won second prize for a march composed for a regional competition. After his discharge, George honed his improvisational skills while working with pianist Willie Anderson, whom Benson considers "as good as any piano player in the country -- the man was just fantastic. Listening to him six nights a week, I learned how to improvise."



He has ...a fine tone, use of full dynamic range of the instrument, and the innate ability to put the right note in the right spot...




The number of jazz outlets continued to shrink in the early 60's and to keep working, Benson turned more to pop oriented music. The younger generation tuned into 'soul' music, a fusion of blues, gospel, and pop exemplified by Motown Records, so Benson put together the 'Soul-Lites', a pop-oriented group that enjoyed local success in Detroit and neighboring communities. George also led the last band at Detroit's fabled Flame Show Bar (1962-63), a trio with Motown mainstay Earl VanDyke on organ and drummer "Big Mike" Lawton. The group worked six nights a week and backed up many great singers, including Dinah Washington.


 

George's solos are consistently coherent, swinging, and enjoyable; his work on tenor sax... is especially soul-stirring...

 


The mix of material is typical of Benson's repertoire and ranges from early jazz and pop standards to 1940's Ellingtonia to a beautiful reading of Thad Jones' "A Child is Born." George's solos are consistently coherent, swinging, and enjoyable; his work on tenor sax, an instrument that he added to his musical arsenal in the mid-50's, is especially soul-stirring. He has a similar concept on both instruments: a fine tone, use of full dynamic range of the instrument, and the innate ability to put the right note in the right spot. Taste, I guess you'd call it. Benson takes "Lullaby of the Leaves" at a bright tempo, and it really swings. "Ja Da" is recast with a funky blues flavor and it sounds damn good; Schunk and the rhythm section sound especially good on this one. Benson is a passionate player and he means every note. His interpretation of "I Surrender Dear," recorded by tenor sax god Coleman Hawkinds in 1940, is excellent, and I hope he features the number more often in his public appearances.

Taken as a whole, George is a sterling example of the talented musicians that have graced the Detroit jazz scene. This CD shows him at his best.


 

 

 

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Sax Master CD Review
August, 1999

by

Jim Gallert

 

Sax Master CD - George Benson Quartet

Sax Master - CD by George Benson Quartet





Benson's early inspirations were Johnny Hodges and Benny Carter, each of whom had a beautiful and unique sound; their imprint is still discernible in his ballad approach. Unlike most alto saxophonists of his generation, Benson did not immediately fall under the spell of Charlie Parker and did not think of himself as a bebopper. It was only later, after repeatedly hearing recordings by Stan Getz and others that George understood Bebop. When he first heard Parker at the Crystal Lounge in 1954, Benson was transfixed. "It was fantastic," he says. George absorbed some of "Bird's" approach to the alto but he did not forsake his earlier inspirations.



When he first heard Parker at the Crystal Lounge in 1954, Benson was transfixed. "It was fantastic," he says.




Benson assembled a quartet after leaving Porter's group and commuted to Toledo, Ohio every week to work the numerous bars in the area. For one engagement George's band included a young Tommy Flanagan on piano as well as R&B guitarist Calvin Frazier. "We would play jazz the first set or two, until the people would come; then we'd break out and play R&B", George recalls. "Calvin would have a long cord, walk all over the club and we would have that place packed EVERY night." In February 1952, Benson recorded four numbers with his combo for the Detroit entrepreneur Joe VonBattle in the makeshift studio at the back of VonBattle's record store on Hastings Street. The recording of the "The Nearness of You" (and "Begin the Beguine" on the flip side) went on to become a best selling single in the Regent Records (Savoy) catalog.


Taken as a whole, George is a sterling example of the talented musicians that have graced the Detroit jazz scene. This CD shows him at his best.

 

A number of changes to the music scene occurred during the 50's. The rise of TV hit clubs hard, and many discontinued live music altogether. A sideman in the late 40's could subsist on a six night per week job, but the wave of change tipped the economic scales against musicians. Many took jobs in non-music related fields. The responsibilities of married and family caused Benson to reevaluate his priorities, shelve plans for a move to New York City, and get a day job. "I wanted my kids to have all the things that other kids had," he states. "After I got my day job, I didn't have to worry because I had money coming in." He continued to work full-time at a series of jobs until 1998, retiring from the US Postal Services after thirty years.





Best of all, they blend well as a rhythm section, and the guys sound like they're having a lot of fun.

 





Benson also toiled in the Motown studios and he worked with several big bands active in Detroit in the 60's and 70's, including Austin-Moro and New McKinney's Cotton Pickers. There was the occasional lounge job but George found more work in the private sector. Happily, the market improved a bit in the 80's and 90's, and George has certainly benefitted from the change.

Benson likes to learn and to teach and he accepted an offer to work at a local college in the 80's. Former students regard hinm as an inspiring teacher, and I have seen George take a group of musicians whom to my ears sounded pretty sad and develop them into a swinging ensemble.

 




The CD, lovingly produced by Jim Ruffner, is a good showcase for Benson's talent.





The CD, lovingly produced by Jim Ruffner, is a good showcase for Benson's talent. Gary Schunk is a creative and gifted pianist who is seemingly capable of executing any idea he conceives. Don Mayberry is a worthy successor to the mantle worn by Detroit bassists Paul Chambers and Doug Watkins. Don and Tom Brown, a busy drummer on today's scene, push the band and lend supple support to Benson. Best of all, they blend well as a rhythm section, and the guys sound like they're having a lot of fun. The group sounds comfortable with the material and they take a free-wheeling approach.
"




Review by

-- Jim Gallert, Detroit, August, 1999