Benson already was part of jazz history when he went solo
STATELINE, Nev. — Miles Davis wanted George Benson to come with him when he took an avant-garde journey with his jazz.After Benson became the first guitarist to appear on a Davis record, 1968’s “Miles in the Sky,” Davis invited him to join his band. Benson’s manager advised against it. “You’ve got a gigantic career coming, you just don’t know it,” he was told. “All the record companies say, ‘George, you’re going to be bigger than Miles.’” Benson said he responded, “Are you crazy? Nobody’s bigger than Miles.”Benson did, in fact, go on to have a fantastic jazz and R&B career which is still going strong. He’s won numerous Grammy Awards, including three in 1976. He also became an accomplished singer with a distinctive scat style to flavor notes. His latest album, “Guitar Man,” has been on the Billboard’s Contemporary Jazz chart for 17 months, and is currently No. 32.Guitar came naturally to Benson, who started on ukulele at age 7 and guitar at 9. His father was a musician and mother a singer.“When my hands got big enough, my parents bought me a little cheap guitar,” Benson said. “I went out on the street corners and I made a fortune with that little guitar. I just happened to have decent ears. I could play what I heard up to a certain degree. When it became very sophisticated, I said I have to study to find out what I’m doing and where I want to go from here. But I was born with natural ears.”Charlie Christian was an early influence for Benson, who in the early 1960s began his recording career with Jack McDuff, who had also collaborated a great guitarist but who in the United States received inexplicably little acclaim.“Grant Green was a gigantic influence,” Benson said. “Jack liked him because he could play bluesy. Jack was a bluesman. And Grant could take a ballad and make it sound like a blues. “It was clean as a whistle and he was never boring. And I had to learn that art so I hung around Grant Green whenever I could. Grant taught me how to take a lyrical thing and stay with the melody and dress it up as you go and by throwing in a blues lick here and there and then you touched earth again because most people are at ground level.”The session with Davis came a few years later. He played guitar on the Wayne Shorter song “Paraphernalia.” Benson’s bright tone is recognizable in occasional bursts, and a solo comes six minutes into the seven-minute track. Drummer Tony Williams tried to give advice to Benson before the session.“Wayne Shorter writes some very interesting songs that are out of the ordinary and this was one of them,” Benson said. “Miles said, ‘I think you’re writing these songs just to see if you can hang me up and see if I can play them.’ “I remember Miles telling Tony Williams, ‘Stop telling (Benson) what to play.’ Miles was not an ordinary cat. He knew what he wanted and didn’t want to influence it so much until it lost interest because if I didn’t feel what I was playing, it didn’t mean anything. It cannot be just notes, so when they started playing, I just tried to feel out a space in the song and by the time I got tuned up, the song was over. But Miles appreciated that more than anything. He said he didn’t want nothing to sound like it had been rehearsed. That was his main thing. ‘Don’t rehearse anything, man. I want spontaneous.’”The first time Benson sang scat on top of his notes, his producer hated it. “Most musicians, if they are not playing a wind instrument, sing along while they play,” Benson said. “The second time I tried it was for producer Tommy LiPuma. It was for “The Masquerade,” and it went over like a fat rat to the moon, record of the year. So you never know.”Benson, who plays Sunday, Feb. 17, in MontBleu Theatre, has many songs he can choose to play, but most all of his shows include “The Masquerade” and “On Broadway.”“We don’t have a set program,” Benson said. “I play it by ear depending what I feel from the audience because I won’t know what the vibe is until I get in front of them and I can feel what kind of energy is coming from the audience. I shape my show accordingly.”
While it is accurate “Miles in the Sky,” was the first Miles Davis album released with a guitar, Davis had sessions with Joe Buck on Dec. 4 and 28 which appeared on a record which came out later, “Circle in the Round. Guitarist Bucky Pizzarelli also appears on “Circle in the Round,” and that session was Jan. 12, 1968. George Benson’s session with Davis was Jan. 16, 1968. All of Davis’ sessions are detailed on Peter Losin’s “Miles Ahead” website plosin.com.