GEORGE BENSON: ‘The Ultimate Collection – Deluxe Edition’ (Rhino)

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Hot on the heels of George Benson’s illuminating and enjoyable literary self-portrait published at the end of last year (‘Benson: The Biography’) comes this likeable if less-than-comprehensive overview of his musical exploits. This is the expanded deluxe version, which boasts an extra disc focusing on duets and lesser known and hard-to-find recordings. Even so, its title is something of a misnomer and it certainly doesn’t span the entirety of the guitarist/singer’s career, which began when he cut a single for RCA as ‘Little Georgie’ in the ’50s – disappointingly, there’s only one cut from Benson’s pre-Warner years and that’s his version of Jefferson Airplane’s ‘White Rabbit’ recorded for Creed Taylor’s CTI imprint in the early ’70s. In its defence, though, this compilation has most of the obvious key cuts from Benson’s incredibly successful tenure with Warner’s and WEA-associated labels in the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s.

‘This Masquerade’ was his breakthrough vocal track that helped propel him to international stardom in ’75 along with the svelte-jazz-funk instrumental, ‘Breezin’.’ Both are mandatory inclusions, of course, on any Benson anthology and are presented here alongside some great Quincy Jones-produced cuts from 1980 – the brilliant ‘Give Me The Night,’ and ‘Love X Love’ – as well as more of his signature songs such as ‘On Broadway,’ ‘Lady Love Me One More Time,’ ‘Love Ballad,’ and ‘The Greatest Love Of All.’  While CD 1 covers familiar ground, CD2 gives us a sprinkling of more hits (‘Shiver,’ ’20/20′ and ‘In Your Eyes’) and is bolstered with duets that Benson recorded with Patti Austin, Aretha Franklin (the tremendous ‘Love All The Hurt Away’), Al Jarreau and Jill Scott (from one of his more recent albums), and Idina Menzel. There’s a bona fide rarity in the shape of the long version of ‘Love Will Come Again,’ a duet with the mighty Chaka Khan from ’83 which was only previously available on cassette.

George Benson wasn’t the first technically-gifted jazz instrumentalist to successfully reinvent himself as a pop star (Louis Armstrong and Nat ‘King’ Cole beat him to it) but this compilation reaffirms that the Pittsburgh singer/guitarist possessed a singular talent as well as a remarkable ability in being able to crossover from the jazz to the pop world without seriously compromising his artistic integrity.

(CW) 4/5