Jazz-guitar giant George Benson's new album is called Irreplaceable, but judging by his elusiveness when it came to this interview, I was beginning to think that "indefatigable" might be more appropriate. Then I got an e-mail from his manager, along with a phone number for the receptionist at a Colorado resort. "Ask for George Washington," the note said, "and you've got 10 minutes to talk." Why not? After all, Benson is one of the founding fathers of crossover jazz.
"I'm constantly staving off the predictability and getting the interest up," Benson says when I finally get him on the phone. "With every new album, you have to do something different. Life moves on, and you have to go with the flow." With countless hit records and eight Grammy awards under his belt, Benson obviously knows what it takes to stay at the top of his game.
Although Benson cut his critically acclaimed debut, The New Boss Guitar, in 1964, it wasn't until 1976 that he brought guitar instrumentals to the top of the radio charts with "Breezin'." He surprised fans when he switched gears with its follow-up, a vocal tune called "This Masquerade." "With 'This Masquerade,' I found an audience I didn't even know existed. It was a nice song, but I didn't know they'd go bananas over it," he says with a laugh. "We got a Grammy for Record of the Year."
A performer since the age of 8, Benson has managed to reinvent himself again and again. But even he concedes that it's a balancing act. "In the old days, I used to light 'em up with the guitar and leave 'em on fire," he says. "I was an energetic young guy with so much to say. I didn't have enough time in the night to say everything, so I'd try to cram it all into one set. Then I found that the older my audience got, they didn't like that high power anymore. They couldn't stand it. It was too much.
"The world was cooling down," Benson continues. "People liked more romantic things, and I began to look at music differently. I wondered if I should use everything I've got in one night or if I should cool down and try to touch on the heartstrings of each and every person in the audience. That seemed to be the approach that works the best for me."
Benson constantly strives to keep his sound current. "Irreplaceable was a lot different than anything I'd done before," he remarks. "There are certain elements that exist in modern R&B -- urban music -- that you have to pay attention to in order to communicate with today's audience."
Crediting composer/producer Joshua Thompson (known for his work with Babyface and Alicia Keys) and R&B star Joe (who penned the title track on Irreplaceable, as well as "Strings of Love" and "Sixplay") for providing the material to propel him into the 21st century, Benson points out that he keeps up with what's current.
"I hear a lot of stuff going on in the air," Benson says. "There's a lot of rap music out there, but there is also a lot of hip-hop and soul that has some musical merit to it. I like that new kid Usher. I love the material he's getting. I hope he's writing some of that stuff, because he's sure performing it from the heart. For me, music has to have two great elements: It has to sound good, and it has to feel good. Usher has both those elements. Add that dance he's got, you can't beat it.
"More than anything," Benson says, "music is about communication. There are so many different ways to tell a story. It can be romantic, or it can be harsh. I prefer to keep it on the fun side and keep the romanticism going."
Pointing to his first single off the album, a Thompson composition called "Cell Phone," Benson says, "Now that song is fun and romantic. Imagine being able to accept a phone call in heaven. Its lyrics address the desire to be with a loved one again, to experience life again. Thompson took an absurd approach with that concept, but he did it in a very tasty way."
Though Benson keeps current, the veteran's heart still lies in the classic jazz scene that launched him. Asked to name the players who have most inspired him, Benson lists such stalwarts as Freddie Hubbard, Miles Davis, and Chick Corea. "And Calvin Newborn," he says, with a nod to the Memphis-born guitarist. "Man, do I love that fella! He came to New York and sat in with us at a gig at Minton's Playhouse, way back in the day. I was burning the place down." Pausing to impersonate Newborn's drawl, Benson says, "'Can I sit in, man? You mind if I play?'" Then Benson cracks up, remembering what ensued. "He tore the place up! When I found out who his brother [pianist Phineas Newborn] was, I said no wonder! There's no slack in that family name."