The One after the Big One: George Benson, IN FLIGHT

Tuesday, June 6, 2017
The One after the Big One: George Benson, IN FLIGHT

The laid-back groove of guitarist George Benson's 1976 his "This Masquerade" might have surprised some listeners who heard it on the radio, but it was, in fact, an extension of the kind of music he had been making for years as a jazz artist, most prominently on the CTI label. Over the course of his association with CTI (from 1971 to 1975), Benson had been edging toward a synthesis of jazz and funk, with a noticeable pop polish. It all came together on BREEZIN', his first LP for Warner Brothers, which took him to Number 1 on the pop album chart and spawned a Top 10 hit in "This Masquerade," which featured not only his unmistakable guitar, but also his vocals, alternatively delivering the lyrics and scatting along with solos.

"This Masquerade" proved to be a useful template, as Benson followed BREEZIN' with IN FLIGHT (1977), which counted four vocal numbers among its eight tracks. For example, the cover of "Nature Boy" that opens the record discarded the stately nature of the famous Nat "King" Cole version in favor of a string- and percussion-laden approach, largely successfully. Benson's voice on IN FLIGHT has a kind of elastic soulfulness, similar in tone to Steve Wonder's, something that wasn't quite as noticeable on "This Masquerade," but which is definitely more pronounced on "Nature Boy," as well as Benson's smooth but still funky cover of WAR's "The World is a Ghetto."

Perhaps the finest track on the record, though, is an instrumental—a cover of Donny Hathaway's "Valdez in the Country," on which Benson's fluidity and instinctive approach are on full display. His chording, his octave playing, his single-note runs—all reveal a virtuosic flair without being ostentatious or needlessly heavy-handed. Benson always has the melody in mind, even when he's riding the groove, even when he's just comping behind Ronnie Foster's keyboard solo. "Valdez" is everything there is to like about Benson, the jazz guitarist, in a single four and a half-minute track.

IN FLIGHT came out at a time when albums like Chuck Mangione's FEELS SO GOOD could hit the Top 10 on the pop album chart (as did IN FLIGHT) and smooth jazz records by the likes of Bob James, Herb Alpert and Michael Franks were also having an impact. IN FLIGHT stood above most of these records thanks to its song selection, as well as Benson's voice and guitar, two instruments that would continue to serve him well in the years ahead, as his pop profile grew. He was a star on the ascent, ready and able to make an even bigger breakthrough.