How easily familiarity can breed if not quite contempt, then maybe apathy. You see, times were when a new album from George Benson would have been greeted with a fanfare – or at least a few crashing chords on that famous Ibanez but now we’ve become so accustomed to his regular releases that some people feel they can take or leave what he comes up with. Well maybe George has sensed that himself ‘cos on this new 12 tracker he pulls out all the stops and returns to the form that made him that familiar household name back in the 70s and 80s. How? Well, first off he’s chosen a tried and tested producer – the inimitable bassist Marcus Miller and together they’ve assembled a top studio core band – Greg Phillinganes (keys) , Jubu (guitar) and John Robinson (drums); then they’ve hand picked some stellar guests – Lee Ritenour, Steve Lukather, Wah Wah Watson, David Paich, Tom Scott, Gerald Albright, Norman Brown, Lalah Hathaway and Patti Austin. Between them they’ve hand picked some classic soul songs and found some brand new ones from top writers, with each new song destined itself to achieve classic status. Finally, to get everything just right they recorded the whole kibosh in one studio in just three days. As George says, “Everything we touched had something on it that made us all glad we were there. It was just the right mix of people and material“. The result is an exceptional album that rivals anything Benson’s recorded before. There are no high spots – every track is a winner. Personal favourites? Well I’ve always loved James Taylor’s ‘Don’t Let Me Be Lonely Tonight’, Donny Hathaway’s ‘Someday We’ll All Be Free’ and Tony Joe White’s ‘Rainy Night In Georgia’ and despite the familiarity of that trio, here they sound as fresh as ever and Georgie’s versions rival the accepted standard ones. Of the new songs, Rod Temperton’s ‘Family Reunion’ is superb while Bill Withers’ ‘A Telephone Call Away’ brings out the best in George’s vocal and that of his duettist Lalah Hathaway. ‘Exotica’ and ‘Living In High Definition’ will keep the jazz guitar fans happy while the interplay between Benson and Norman Brown on ‘Nuthin’ But A Party’ testifies to the great time the team had making the album. In short, ‘Songs And Stories’ is one the year’s best soul albums … and it proves what we all knew anyway – that George Benson can still produce musical magic. Ignore at your peril!