The last time I saw George Benson, he was bashing out the hits with immaculate style at the Royal Albert Hall. Vocals took precedence, and it was a while before he finally let rip on guitar. At this Ronnie Scott’s gig, the hits kept coming, but now they were embellished with lashings of Benson’s instrumental prowess and the only full-on vocal was a technically demanding crooned ballad sung mid-set.
Benson was in fluent form, raining down quickfire guitar lines with a pure tone and a deep sound, his hard attack softened by the subtlety of his voicings. He cajoled the slightest melody into something substantial with a single, perfectly timed bent note, sang in unison to his own improvised lines and whizzed up the fretboard, rhythmically chording in octaves, Wes Montgomery-style. Benson’s approach is part of the fabric of late 20th-century jazz guitar, but he makes it sound fresh, and on this showing remains without peer.
The band kicked off with the light Latin lilt of “Mambo Inn”. Clattery funk followed, with Benson’s trademark ping resounding over jittery clavinet, and then a ballad intro morphed into a hard groove and flowing, blues-laced Benson. On every tune, he let fly with chorus after chorus of invention.
Six numbers in, Benson said: “You know we’re gonna stick some of this stuff in,” and promptly cued “Turn Your Love Around”. The 1980s beats were solid, backing vocals came in, and Benson’s falsetto soared to set up an extended play-out. “They’ll be carrying me out in a box,” he said, wiping his face with a towel. It was time for a short break from playing, and his first and only audience chat. Pointing to the dozens of photos of jazz greats crammed on to Ronnie Scott’s walls, Benson observed: “See these guys? I know 80 per cent of them – personally.”
He kicked back into gear crooning a ballad and covered Norah Jones’s “Don’t Know Why”, before “Breezin’” launched a greatest-hits finale. The band were spot on and the guitar solos kept flowing right through to the end of “Give Me the Night”. Benson rarely plays in clubs – this gig was a pricey members-only outing that, the club said, sold out within six minutes – and seeing him stretch out like this really was a treat.
Tour continues across the UK, France and beyond, georgebenson.com