Smooth Jazz Origins: George Benson’s Breezin’

November 8, 2008 at 1:28 pm Leave a comment

In prior posts I have tangentially noted my increasing dislike of recent Smooth Jazz releases. They have seemed ever more mechanical, formulaic, and lacking in musical depth. This has been frustrating, as the genre has been one that I work in myself, and I have listened with much pleasure to many different artists that have helped define the genre over the past thirty years or so.

I therefore decided to revisit some of the albums in my vinyl collection and see if I still found them to be as compelling now as I did in the past. While this certainly cannot be an objective review – the music is in most cases far too ingrained in my long term memory – I still think this will be a worthwhile listening project.

To facilitate this, I purchased an inexpensive portable digital recorder from Musicians Friend (http://pro-audio.musiciansfriend.com/product/Dynasonic-PDR1-Stereo-Digital-Recorder?sku=241874) and a 4gb SD card. I am using this to record from my home stereo (which does still have a turntable) into a digital format that I can burn onto CDs to which I can listen while in the car. Other than a few rather annoying skips in some of the records, this has been going pretty well so far.

I decided to start with the artist and the album that I feel really help define the smooth jazz genre when it was released in 1976 – George Benson’s Breezin’.

breezin1

It was the first of four albums that feature a relatively stable production team (Tommy LiPuma producing and Al Schmidt recording) and group of sidemen (including Harvey Mason on drums).  The next three are In Flight (1977), Weekend in LA (1978), and Livin’ Inside Your Love (1979).These four albums  also mark George Benson’s transition from an artist known primarily as a guitarist to one known as a vocalist, as well as his transition from being seen only as a “jazz” artist to a “popular” artist.

Breezin’ is notable for a few reasons.  It was by far the best selling jazz album of its era, was certified triple platinum in 1984, topped both the jazz and pop album charts, and also had top charting singles in both the title track and the vocal track This Masquerade, written by Leon Russell.

The title cut was written by Bobby Womack, and interestingly, was featured on a 1971 album (High Contrast) by Hungarian jazz guitarist Gabor Szabo, which was also produced by Tommy LiPuma.  Here is link to a video on YouTube of him performing it:  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Xz0zYA_12og.

George Benson’s Breezin’ album is arguably the best of his four late 70’s releases. It established the style the other three followed, and has remarkably fresh performances for a studio album, especially considering that the style doesn’t leave lots of room for “stretching out”.  This video is a live performance of Breezin’ from that period with Benson and the basic band used on the recording:

In my opinion, the track “Affirmation” (a Jose Feliciano tune)  set a standard for the genre that has seldom been equaled in the thirty years since.  This is again a period live performance with the same backup band:

I have been unable to find reliable confirmation of this, but I recall hearing back in the late 70’s that the recording of Masquerade was done in a single take. Here again is a period live performance:

All four of these late seventies albums are worthwhile. Weekend In LA is probably the next best, as it benefits from the energy inherent in live performances. Breezin’, however, certainly deserves it’s classic status as a breakthrough album.

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Entry filed under: Guitar, Jazz, Music, Oldies, Smooth Jazz.

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