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Anyone in the Michigan musical community knows that there are two George Bensons: the famous Pittsburgh guitarist and the older Detroit saxophonist, the Original. The Original George Benson, who 'walked the bar' during blues gigs in the 1940s. The Original George Benson, who worked so many Motown sessions he can't seem to remember which hits he played on. The Original George Benson, whose wife had to tell him whether to put on a tuxedo or a postman's uniform when he was the bandleader at Flame's Show Bar (on John R & Canfield) by night and a postal worker by day. The Original George Benson, who Joe Henderson used to check out at the 20 Grand (on 14th & Warren)... The Original George Benson!
I first met George in 2005 during the recording of pianist Claude Black's "The Detroit Jazz Connection" at Murphy's Place in Toledo. (Claude and George played together as teenagers in the 8 Mile-Wyoming area.) I first played with George in 2011 at Baker's Keyboard Lounge with bassist Dan Pliskow and drummer Renell Gonsalves, who recommended me for the gig.
Over the next few years I worked occasional jobs with Dan and George, where I experienced the highest possible level of personal and musical courtesy. Both musicians were sprightly for their age and personified the any-tune-in-any-key mentality that young musicians only read about. (I will add that George's tune list is handwritten into a tabbed address book.) The first time I gave him a ride to a gig, it took all of ten minutes for him to nonchalantly share, "You know, Tommy Flanagan used to play in my band." No pressure.
Born in 1929, George's playing spans three eras of jazz saxophone, not to mention his mastery of the blues. He started out playing in big bands and idolized Coleman Hawkins. After hearing Charlie Parker live in the 1950s, he learned bebop. He later incorporated Coltrane-inflected patterns, throwing in occasional post-Coltrane effects too. He draws upon all of these influences to display a range of harmonic and timbral colors.
George is a very harmonic improvisor. He implies a lot of bebop chord substitutions (tri-tone sub, ii-V sequences) in his solos, a technique more associated with pianists than horn players. Accompanying George always keeps me on my toes. In a sense it's like accompanying another pianist, and a very savvy one at that.
George's experience and open-minded attitude make him at ease with any ensemble or audience. He is a very visual performer, which regrettably cannot be captured in a sound recording. His stage presence is integral to the music, whether creating a left-to-right call-and-response with himself during a solo, mimicking a plunger mute with his right hand, or dancing during other people's solos; no doubt vestiges of his jump blues days. It's as if every note corresponds to motion.
I got the idea for this recording after we did a couple of duo gigs last December. I showed up to the first rehearsal with a list of standards and a tune of mine, thinking that each of us might contribute a tune or two. Once we started playing through George's folder of originals, the theme of the album became obvious. Out of what you hear, only one tune had been recorded before, and not by George. Jack's Place was a studio in Windsor, Ontario and LaJune is his wife of 63 years. This CD documents a neglected composer's music and features the composer at his dynamic and soulful best. I hope you can hear the joy and spontaneous camaraderie we experience when we play together.
We dedicate this music to the memory of Claude Black, Dan Pliskow, and Marcus Belgrave.
Glenn Tucker, 2015