Saturday, June 24, 2017

George Benson - 1971 [1987] "White Rabbit"

White Rabbit is an album by George Benson. The title track is a cover of the famous Great Society/Jefferson Airplane song by Grace Slick.

For George Benson's second CTI project, producer Creed Taylor and arranger Don Sebesky successfully place the guitarist in a Spanish-flavored setting full of flamenco flourishes, brass fanfares, moody woodwinds and such. The idea works best on "California Dreamin'" (whose chords are based on Andalusian harmonies), where, driven by Jay Berliner's exciting Spanish rhythm guitar, Benson comes through with some terrifically inspired playing. On "El Mar," Berliner is replaced by Benson's protégé Earl Klugh (then only 17) in an inauspicious -- though at the time, widely-heralded -- recorded debut. The title track is another winner, marred only by the out-of-tune brasses at the close, and in a good example of the CTI classical/jazz formula at work, Heitor Villa-Lobos' "Little Train of the Caipira" is given an attractive early-'70s facelift. Herbie Hancock gets plenty of nimble solo space on Rhodes electric piano, Airto Moreira contributes percussion and atmospheric wordless vocals, and Ron Carter and Billy Cobham complete the high-energy rhythm section. In this prime sample of the CTI idiom, everyone wins.

After three late-1960s A&M albums with mastermind Creed Taylor prior to the creation of CTI Records, guitarist George Benson hit 1971 running with two CTI debuts, issued a few months apart. Beyond the Blue Horizon was closer, in complexion, to his A&M recordings—harkening back, even, to his impressive 1966 Columbia Records two-punch, It's Uptown and The George Benson Cookbook—although the virtuosic, soul- drenched guitarist was clearly evolving as a player and maturing into one whose firebrand, virtuosic tendencies were becoming refreshingly balanced with greater maturity and restraint.

White Rabbit was (and remains) an anomaly in Benson's prodigious catalogue, with its heavy orchestration by CTI regular Don Sebesky. It's also the album that first paired Earl Klugh—a guitarist who, in the face of Charlie Byrd and Laurindo Almeida, took the nylon-string into the realm of light funk and soul—with the electric Benson. The partnership would last a couple more years to the more decidedly groove- centric Body Talk (CTI, 1973), which foreshadowed Benson's rocket to stardom with his move to Warner Bros. and 1976's megahit, Breezin'.

Despite some truly dated material—in particular the title track, an overblown look at Jefferson Airplane's drug-drenched, 1967 hit single—Benson transcends it all, with some brilliant playing, even as "White Rabbit" strives to break out of Sebesky's overbearing bolero-like arrangement. Herbie Hancock, too, turns in an energetic electric piano solo, and comps with soft (and welcome) pushes towards the outer reaches during Hubert Laws' flute feature, creating some much-needed tension and release, even as the track heads towards an overly cluttered ending that, with tympanis pounding, is indicative of CTI at its worst.

That said, Sebesky's gentle strings and harp on "Theme from 'Summer of 42'" are far more successful—and appropriate. It's easy listening, to be sure, with Benson joining Klugh on nylon string guitar, as the song moves into light Latin territory, but the more change-heavy take on a classical piece—Villa Lobos' "Little Train," taken from the composer's "Bachianas Brasilerias #2," is an album highlight; Benson's fleet-fingers matched by Hancock and bolstered by bassist Ron Carter and drummer Billy Cobham, who cook without overbearance.

Another dated track, The Mamas and The Papas' pre-Summer of Love hit, "California Dreamin,'" begins with an almost non-sequitur of Spanish tinges but, more than anywhere else on the album, demonstrates the simpatico interplay between Benson and Klugh, suggesting that Klugh was, indeed, a star in the making. Klugh's gorgeous intro to Benson's closing "El Mar"—the album's only original—sets the stage for an 11-minute highlight that suggests a stylistic breadth to Benson that, despite a subsequent career living as much in the pop world as anywhere else, has continued to this day.

An anomaly in Benson's catalogue, perhaps, and one with its fair share of weaknesses to offset its many strengths, this CTI Masterworks reissue of White Rabbit remains, in many ways, a curiosity that transitions between his more mainstream efforts and the soulful jazz/pop star he was about to become; not without its merits, but not essential either.

Track listing:

01 "White Rabbit" (Grace Slick) - 6:55
02 "Theme from Summer of '42" (Michel Legrand) - 5:08
03 "Little Train (from Bachianas Brasileiras No.2)" (Heitor Villa-Lobos) - 5:47
04 "California Dreaming" (John Phillips, Michelle Phillips) - 7:22
05 "El Mar" (George Benson) - 10:49

Personnel:

George Benson - guitar
Jay Berliner - acoustic guitar
Earl Klugh - acoustic guitar (5)
Ron Carter - bass
Herbie Hancock - electric piano
Billy Cobham - drums
Airto Moreira - percussion, vocals
Gloria Agostini - vibes, percussion

Woodwinds:
Phil Bodner - flute, alto flute, oboe, English horn
Hubert Laws - flute, alto flute, piccolo, flute solo on 1
George Marge - flute, alto flute, clarinet, oboe, English horn
Romeo Penque - English horn, oboe, alto flute, clarinet, bass clarinet
Jane Taylor - bassoon

Brass:
Wayne Andre - trombone, baritone
Jim Buffington - French horn
John Frosk - trumpet, flugelhorn, solo (1, 5)
Alan Rubin - trumpet, flugelhorn

4 comments:

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  2. Great post! Thank u!

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