THE DOZENS: BOBBY BROOM SELECTS 12 ESSENTIAL GEORGE BENSON TRACKS by Ted Panken (editor)

Editor’s Note: Around 1975, Bobby Broom, a 14-year-old guitar aspirant from Harlem who was playing R&B, funk, and soul covers in neighborhood hit bands, began to take an interest in jazz.

Bobby Broom

“I took a lesson every week with a jazz guitarist in Harlem,” Broom recalled in a conversation about the origin of his obsession with George Benson, the subject of this edition of the Musician Dozens. “Every week he’d talk about Wes Montgomery and play standards with me, and I loved it, but once I left the lesson, that was it. Somehow, though, because of the records I heard on the radio, like Headhunters’ “Chameleon” or Grover Washington’s “Mr. Magic,” I was drawn to jazz—I could get with the underlying rhythms, and I could understand what the soloists were doing. I ran to the record store and said, ‘I want to learn jazz guitar,’ and the guy gave me Bad Benson. When I heard it, that was it—it made it right to pursue jazz on the guitar.”

At the time, Benson was on the cusp of jazz superstardom, capping a meteoric career path that began in Pittsburgh, where he began performing in the ‘50s as a singer under the sway of Nat Cole, Sam Cooke, and Mario Lanza. He gradually began to incorporate guitar into his presentation, building on an influence tree rooted in the styles of Charlie Christian and Barney Kessel, and incorporating the innovations of Wes Montgomery, Grant Green and Kenny Burrell.

“When I was about 17, I started going to jam sessions at a local guitar player’s house, and he would pick up records for us to listen to,” Benson told me several years ago. “We could steal the licks. We were listening to Jimmy Smith’s All Day Long, to Hank Garland’s recording called Jazz Winds From a New Direction, and to Grant Green’s first recording called Grantstand. Then there was that new Wes Montgomery guy! He was just becoming famous. The record of his that woke me up was the song “While We’re Young” from the album So Much Guitar. That record convinced me that he was more than just a guitar player, that he was someone very special.”

Benson credits the uniqueness of his approach to several days in San Francisco spent in the company of the blind pianist Freddie Gambrell, who had made a trio recording several years before with Chico Hamilton. “I was walking around the city, taking in the scenes, and quite by accident I walked into this club and heard a piano player who was very good,” Benson recalled. “I told him who I was, and he said, ‘Go get your guitar,’ which I did. He gave me a lesson in harmony. He was a guy who had a big jar on his piano for people to drop the dollars in when they made requests. He stopped doing that to show me what he was talking about. I didn’t understand anything he was saying to me. He was calling off chord changes; I didn’t understand any of them. He would say ‘C!’ I’d play a C, and he’d say, ‘No, not that C.’ I said, ‘Wait a minute. There’s more than one C?’ He began to explain. What I learned has been with me to this day.



         George Benson, artwork by Suzanne Cerny

“I think people began to notice me when I started to apply that theory and experiment, and what I learned from Freddie Gambrell separated me from the normal guitar thinking. That made me interesting to other players, who would always ask me, ‘Where you coming from, man?’”

Not long after this experience, Benson called Buffalo-based organist Lonnie Smith, whom he had heard in 1964 while in town with Brother Jack McDuff’s popular quartet, to join him, tenor saxophonist Red Holloway and drummer Joe Dukes for his debut New York engagement. They began in the Bronx, at the venerable 845 Club, then followed Grant Green at the Palm Café on 125th Street, and next entered Minton’s Playhouse for an extended run.

“The Palm Café had go-go dancers, and George and I would sing duets,” Smith told me for a Down Beat piece last year. “James Brown was at the Apollo, and he came down every night, jumped up on the organ and said, ‘don’t you move; you stay right there.’ Esther Phillips would play a bit of organ, too; I’d stay there and they’d tickle the top. James Brown wanted us to go with him, but we just kept on our route, which was the correct thing to do. John Hammond heard about us, and he came by and signed us to Columbia Records. The rest was history.”

Broom’s own personal history has included two stints with Sonny Rollins, first during the early ‘80s, and more recently since 2005. He also leads two Chicago-based units— his own guitar-bass-drum trio, and the cooperative Deep Blue Organ Trio with organist Chris Foreman and drummer Greg Rockingham. You can find out more on his excellent website, www,bobbybroom.com, which features an informative blog.

Below Broom takes us on a guided tour of 12 tracks that span more than 3 decades in the career of George Benson.


George Benson: Eternally

Track

Eternally

Artist

George Benson (guitar)

CD

It’s Uptown (Columbia/Legacy 502469 )

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Musicians:

George Benson (guitar), Dr. Lonnie Smith (organ), Ronnie Cuber (baritone sax),

Ray Lucas (drums)

.

Composed by George Benson

.

Recorded: New York, March 15, 1966

Albumcovergbensonitsuptown

Rating: 100/100 (learn more)

On this Latin-esque minor blues tune from his 1965 debut album It’s Uptown, Benson unleashes the controlled urgency and masterful fluidity that would become his signature in the 1970s. Although the tune is presented in a rhythmic style that suggests the laid-back cool of a 1960s cocktail party, George Benson comes out of the gates on fire, making nothing but exacting melodic and rhythmic musical statements with not one extraneous note throughout his five solo choruses. His playing style, although not fully developed, is quite apparent, and clearly distinguishable from its influences (Wes Montgomery, Grant Green and Hank Garland are a few that come to mind). The urban-blues consciousness, blistering technique, rhythmic freedom and melodic and harmonic sophistication, are all on display in two riveting minutes of improvisation.

Reviewer: Bobby Broom


George Benson: Ready and Able

Track

Ready and Able

Artist

George Benson (guitar)

CD

The George Benson Cookbook (Columbia Legacy CK 66054)

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Musicians:

George Benson (guitar), Marvin Stamm (brass), Ron Carter (bass), Idris Muhammad (drums),

Burt Collins (brass), Joe Shepley (brass), Wayne Andre (brass), Alan Raph, (brass), Buddy Lucas (reeds), Chares Covington (organ), Johnny Pacheco (congas)

.

Arranged and conducted by Don Sebesky

.

Recorded: New York, August 1, 1966

Albumcovergbensoncookbook

Rating: 100/100 (learn more)

After the crisp execution of this Jimmy Smith-penned melody on the chords of "I Got Rhythm," it’s equally exciting to hear Benson’s comping behind Ronnie Cuber’s baritone solo. It’s a lesson in taste and subtlety, as well as an indication of why a musician’s rhythmic feel is so important. Although George’s chordal ideas are voluminous, they’re most properly placed (in both rhythm and octave range) to excite and propel the music and seemingly always relevant in those same ways to the drama of the soloist’s phrases.

Benson’s solo takes the excitement level up even more, which is quite a feat considering the superb solo it follows. I’m particularly fond of his harmonic vision here, which makes what and how he plays on these changes seem very unique and personal to him. As always, his command of the jazz idiom and syntax, and how he chooses to fuse these with blues and R&B leanings to form a distinctive and influential jazz guitar style, is apparent. A much more obvious observation, though, is that his technique here is simply mind-boggling. What makes this solo so breathtaking has less to do with how fast or lengthy his lines are, than how he is able to think and hear ahead in order to shape finely crafted melodic ideas through the chord progressions. The component that completes his stunning technique is the quicksilver response and coordination that allows him to execute so flawlessly.

Reviewer: Bobby Broom


George Benson: Shape of Things That Are and Were

Track

Shape of Things That Are and Were

Artist

George Benson (guitar)

CD

Shape of Things to Come (Verve 602517426672)

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Musicians:

George Benson (guitar), Marvin Stamm (brass), Ron Carter (bass), Idris Muhammad (drums),

Burt Collins (brass), Joe Shepley (brass), Marvin Stamm, Wayne Andre (brass), Alan Raph (brass), Buddy Lucas (reeds), Chares Covington (organ), Johnny Pacheco, (congas)

.

Arranged and conducted by Don Sebesky

.

Recorded: New York, September 5, 1968

Albumcovergbensonshape

Rating: 94/100 (learn more)

On this blues head by Benson from his 1968 A&M Records debut, he gives a nod to his predecessor Wes Montgomery and also breaks the mold. The recording actually took place on Montgomery’s old turf (same record label, producer, arranger, musicians)—George was offered a new recording contract in order to replace Wes just after Montgomery’s untimely death.

Benson’s playing here is the perfect example of a jazz musician who has fully realized his own voice on his instrument. His approach, rhythmic and otherwise, contains the inherent essence of a decade or more of R&B and soul music culture that he’s absorbed and adds to the jazz mix. In his block-chord soloing he freely employs one of the techniques that was integral to Wes’s style without ever sounding like a mimic. Actually, Benson takes Wes up a notch, and especially in his single-line playing establishes that this is the next level for jazz guitar. He shows off two new, jaw-dropping techniques—a risqué sweep picking and an ability to play in flurries that are removed from the strictures of the meter. What makes all this dazzle most amazing for me, though, is that it is so controlled and tempered by a spirit of extreme musicality. It never actually sounds like he’s showing off.

Reviewer: Bobby Broom


George Benson: The Gentle Rain

Track

The Gentle Rain

Artist

George Benson (guitar)

CD

Beyond the Blue Horizon (Mosaic Contemporary 5010)

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Musicians:

George Benson (guitar), Ron Carter (bass), Jack DeJohnette (drums),

Clarence Palmer (organ), Michael Cameron (percussion), Albert Nicholson, (percussion)

.

Composed by Luiz Bonfá

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Recorded: New York, February 1971

Albmcovergbensonbeyondthebhorizon

Rating: 100/100 (learn more)

From my perspective, this tune represents a period of exploitation, experimentation and growth for George Benson during his days at CTI Records (1971-1976). This jazz-bossa standard is treated with more rhythmic freedom and at times suggests more urban, New York-style Latin rhythms and double-time backbeat, thanks to Jack DeJohnette’s polyrhythms. Benson uses this active backdrop as a springboard for his own rhythmically aggressive playing on the solo vamp. I also like how he employs Ron Carter on cello to create sound-painted melodies and smears as a supplement to the organ-drums-percussion rhythm section. George even looks to the cello for melodic interaction as he begins his solo.

These abstractions create a mood that’s a perfect foil for what could possibly be go-nowhere II-chord-to-V-chord blowing. George uses his fierce technique to build this solo to a frenzy, while organically using his favorite elements—the blues, a probing harmonic awareness to inform his single-line ideas, block chords, a keen melodic and rhythmic sense, and controlled abandon. He takes chances here that are only available to those who know and trust that elusive musical spirit. Whether it’s by leaps, steps or spins, lulls, cries or shouts, his ideas are always delivered with grace and are musically sound and emotionally moving.

Reviewer: Bobby Broom


George Benson: Plum

Track

Plum

Artist

George Benson (guitar)

CD

Body Talk (CTI/Epic/Legacy 86147)

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Musicians:

George Benson (guitar), Jon Faddis (trumpet), Frank Foster (tenor sax), Harold Mabern (electric piano), Earl Klugh (guitar), Jack DeJohnette (drums),

John Gatchell (trumpet), Waymon Reed (trumpet). Gerald Chamberlain (trombone), Dick Griffin (trombone), Gary King (electric bass), Mobutu (percussion)

.

Arranged and conducted by Pee Wee Ellis. Composed by George Benson

.

Recorded: New York, July 17-18, 1973

Albumcovergbensonbodytalk

Rating: 100/100 (learn more)

This track contains some of the most exciting and articulate jazz guitar phrasing I’ve ever heard. On his original composition, chockfull of moving chords, George shows us his artistic nature by taking liberties with how he chooses to build the track to create a total performance and presentation.

He uses the intro—an easy, loping, 2-chord vamp—as a precursor, soloing sparsely as a suggestion of where he’ll be heading later on. In this AABA tune he states the A section melody only once and then proceeds to improvise through the entire remainder of the form, repeating an additional A section melody again as a kind of recap. I’m fortunate to know the actual melody of the complete tune from having worked with Stanley Turrentine (George’s label-mate on CTI) who, many years later, had this tune in his repertoire. However, prior to that experience I had no clue that there was a B section melody! Regardless, this track proceeds from one event to another so seamlessly and is so perfectly spellbinding that I never questioned it. And actually, the A section melody is a complete musical statement unto itself.

Benson is now at the top of his game as a guitarist and jazz musician and can seemingly do whatever he pleases. He’s making all the right moves here. His solo over the second A, B, and final A sections of the melody form transcends the guitar and is in the realm of the highest level in jazz. The rhythmic, melodic and harmonic freedom and command with which he navigates these progressions, coupled with his technical mastery of his instrument, should place him among the pantheon of the greatest jazz musicians of all time—the same group of musicians that I use as a reference point to make this statement (which may seem bold to some). After he devours the chord changes on the form, he breaks to restate the A melody again (a palate cleanser), before indulging in the 2-chord vamp like a vacationer at a cruise ship dessert bar. The funk, blues and jazz smorgasbord of ideas and technique seems never-ending as the track fades.

Reviewer: Bobby Broom


George Benson: Summer Wishes, Winter Dreams

Track

Summer Wishes Winter Dreams

Artist

George Benson (guitar)

CD

Bad Benson (Sony/BMG 724211)

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Musicians:

George Benson (guitar), Kenny Barron (piano), Phil Upchurch (guitar), Ron Carter (bass), Steve Gadd (drums),

John Frosk (brass), Alan Rubin (brass), Joe Shepley (brass), Wayne Andre (brass), Garnett Brown (brass), Warren Covington (brass), Paul Faulise (brass), Jim Buffington (brass), Brooks Tillotson (brass), Phil Bodner (reeds), George Marge (reeds), Al Regni (reeds), Seymour Barab (strings), Jessy Levy (strings), Frank Levy (strings), Charles McCracken (strings), Alan Shulman (strings), Paul Tobias (strings), Margaret Ross (harp)

.

Arranged by Don Sebesky

.

Recorded: Spring, 1974

Albumcovergbensonbadbenson

Rating: 94/100 (learn more)

Many might find this pick way too schmaltzy, but I can’t help including this movie theme ballad, super-sweetly orchestrated by Don Sebesky, because it highlights a side of George Benson’s musicianship that deserves consideration.

Here we find Benson in the setting made successful by Wes Montgomery on A&M Records almost a decade before—jazz guitar accompanied by full orchestra. I believe that it takes nothing less than an instrumental master with star quality to carry an arrangement such as this, which wraps itself around Benson’s beautifully lush tone, voice-like phrasing and perfectly controlled pace. His embellishments of the melody show a musical depth that transcends jazz as a category and breaks through to being just plain good music. I love the gorgeous chord melody playing and the brilliant mini-cadenza just before the end.

Reviewer: Bobby Broom


George Benson: Sky Dive

Track

Sky Dive

Artist

George Benson (guitar)

CD

George Benson in Concert – Carnegie Hall (CBS Associated 6009)

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Musicians:

George Benson (guitar), Hubert Laws (flute), Ronnie Foster (keyboards), Steve Gadd (drums),

Wayne Dockery (bass), Will Lee (bass), Marvin Chapell (drums), Andy Newmark (drums), Ray Armando (percussion), Johnny Griggs (percussion)

.

Composed by Freddie Hubbard

.

Recorded: Carnegie Hall, New York, January 11, 1975

Albumcovergeorgebensoninconcertcarnegiehall

Rating: 94/100 (learn more)

Every set needs a burnout tune. At this 1975 Carnegie Hall concert, this was it. Benson takes Freddie Hubbard’s "Sky Dive" to the stratosphere!

He states the melody as though he wrote it himself, using both single notes and chords, and I’m amazed every time I hear the knuckle-busting fills he twists between the phrases of the melody in the second and third A sections. His solo is nothing but masterful. He uses all the tools available to him—single lines, double-stops, octaves, octaves with an added note (which would soon become one of his trademarks) and block chords—to the most dramatically powerful effect, and evokes an incredible feeling of excitement on his instrument. Near the end of the solo, he reaches spiritual heights, wailing repeatedly on bent notes, in effect crying out. He had played everything else. There was nothing left to do.

I don’t think there is another guitarist in jazz who has shown us how much emotional range and depth is accessible on the instrument. Because of the inherent characteristics of the classic jazz guitar sound (i.e., sans effects), at its best it’s a satisfyingly warm, mellow and beautiful listening experience. But when it’s time to burn or get down, often guitarists turn to effects to bolster themselves against the clean-toned guitar’s physical challenges. This tune is a perfect example of the soaring heights that Benson could reach without the use of effects, via his superior talent, singular vision, musicianship and style.

Reviewer: Bobby Broom


George Benson: Affirmation

Track

Affirmation

Artist

George Benson (guitar)

CD

Breezin' (Warner Bros 75369; Rhino/WEA 76713)

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Musicians:

George Benson (guitar), Ronnie Foster (keyboards), Phil Upchurch (rhythm guitar), Harvey Mason (drums), Ralph MacDonald (percussion),

Jorge Dalto (piano), Stanley Banks (bass), unknown strings

.

Arranged and conducted by Claus Ogerman

.

Recorded: Hollywood, January 6-7-8, 1978

Albumcovergbensonbreezin

Rating: 100/100 (learn more)

A backbeat has never disqualified melody or harmony to my ears, so when I listen to this cut I hear George Benson, jazz musician, at the height of his improvisational and creative abilities. The Breezin’ album, where this tune appears, was George’s breakthrough, making him a major crossover artist. But what pleased me so at the time was that there were plenty of juicy and lengthy guitar solos for me to wrap my brain around. There’s also a fairly even blend of harmonic motion and modal vamps over which the solos occur throughout the record, allowing George to express himself fully.

This tune represents classic Benson in a few different ways. During the 1970s it had become pretty much his standard practice as an improviser to deal first with moving chord progressions during his solos and then tackle modal vamps, which is the case with "Affirmation." This solo contains the usual devices in his arsenal, except the octave with additional note technique (he does use regular octaves). In place of strumming the octaves, however, he plucks them simultaneously, using his thumb and index finger to create a more stinging effect. As a matter of fact, this is another technical variation (in addition to the octave with added note) that he incorporated into his trademark style. Otherwise, the singing melodicism, cascading single notes, bluesy funk, and gritty, flurrying double-stops are all there.

I also have to note the transcendent nature of George Benson’s language as a jazz improviser, which is realized on this album and is perfectly evident on this particular piece. Rather than rely upon tried and true melodic phrases from the jazz idiom, he (in true jazz musician form) draws from these melodies with measured precision, realizing them as a portion of the total information in his melodic palette. Combining these with the melodies of the blues culture and American folk and popular cultures, Benson creates solos that represent the best in jazz in their idiomatic and rhythmic integrity, as well as their inclusive nature and expansive scope.

Reviewer: Bobby Broom


George Benson: Soulful Strut

Track

Soulful Strut

Artist

George Benson (guitar)

CD

Livin’ Inside Your Love (Warner Bros 2-3277)

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Musicians:

George Benson (guitar), Ronnie Foster (keyboards), Phil Upchurch (rhythm guitar), Will Lee (bass), Steve Gadd (drums), Ralph MacDonald (percussion),

Jorge Dalto (keyboards), unknown strings

.

Conducted by Claus Ogerman

.

Recorded: 1978

Albumcovergbensonlivinginsideyourlove

Rating: 94/100 (learn more)

Back in 1968, this tune was an instrumental pop/soul radio hit. George and company must have felt, ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,’ as they were rollin’ along and seemed to be enjoying the ride, since they had found the formula for success. Even Claus Ogerman’s strings in the opening statement give more than a nod to the intro of one of their other hits from a previous album or two. But I guess that’s human nature even for jazz musicians—go with what works (at least until it becomes stale).

Benson and his group are all settled in and cozily familiar with their own sound and feel. Everything fits (from the blend of the instruments’ sounds and their parts in this feel-good arrangement, to the overall sound of the production) for George’s guitar to stand out front and carry the track home, which he does with polish and energy, in his unmistakable style. The backbeat, clavinet, and strings may have led some jazz fans to turn away, concluding that his jazz days were over. But the sense of authority and surefooted pacing with which he plays at this point in his career, coupled with the knowledge, energy and excitement of his jazz mentality, and his even more accurate, ridiculous technique, leads me to say: they don’t know what they’re missing.

Reviewer: Bobby Broom


George Benson: We All Remember Wes

Track

We All Remember Wes

Artist

George Benson (guitar)

CD

Weekend in L.A. (Warner Bros 3139)

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Musicians:

George Benson (guitar), Ronnie Foster (keyboards), Phil Upchurch (rhythm guitar), Harvey Mason (drums), Ralph MacDonald (percussion),

Jorge Dalto (keyboards), Stanley Banks (electric bass)

.

Recorded: Los Angeles, February 1, 1977

Albumcovergbensonwinla

Rating: 95/100 (learn more)

True jazz lovers and jazz guitar geeks should rejoice when they hear this one! It’s a song written in tribute to the one-and-only Wes Montgomery by the one-and-only Stevie Wonder. And although the song is done with a pseudo-disco beat on the drums, it’s got a rock-solid, head-bobbing groove, and carries some meaty chord changes as well.

Here is George at his improvisational best. Not a note is wasted as he makes his way through these changes, one second like a heavyweight boxing champ and the next a balance beam gymnast. There are countless causes for oohs and ahhs here, but never so much as the slightest stumble. His time-feel is off the chart. It feels like he’s so at one with this groove that he’s both inside of it and riding on top of it at the same time.

This is Benson in the zone. And master that he is, he knows that his one chorus solo is plenty.

Reviewer: Bobby Broom


George Benson: Being With You

Track

Being With You

Artist

George Benson (guitars)

CD

In Your Eyes (Collectibles 7731)

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Musicians:

George Benson (guitars), Jon Faddis (trumpet), Randy Brecker (trumpet), Michael Brecker (tenor sax), David Sanborn (alto sax),

Harry Lookofsky, alto saxophone; and others

.

Recorded: 1978

Albumcovergbensoninyoureyes

Rating: 94/100 (learn more)

By 1983, when this record was released, Benson was a pop star facing all of the responsibilities of meeting with continued success (at the very least). And because of this, I’m sure, here we’re hearing George in six-figure, studio production.

But on this tune (written by my friend, drummer Omar Hakim), George channels his jazz guitar persona. His guitar sings this melody and I believe every word, along with every amazing fill-in between the melody! On his solo he exploits all his powers, and by the melody out it should be clear that although he’s moved on, we should always welcome him when he wants to visit.

Reviewer: Bobby Broom


George Benson: Poquito Spanish, Poquito Funk

Track

Poquito Spanish, Poquito Funk

Artist

George Benson (guitar, vocals)

CD

Standing Together (GRP 9906)

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Musicians:

George Benson (guitar, vocals),

with personnel including: Jerry Hey (trumpet), Larry Williams (reeds), Carlos Henriquez (bass), Paul Brown (programming), Lil’ John Roberts (drums, cymbals) Melvin Davis(keyboards, synthesizer), Tim Heintz (keyboards, synthesizer), Luisito Quintero (percussion)

.

Recorded: 1998

Albumcovergbensonstandingtogether

Rating: 94/100 (learn more)

I hadn’t received a visit from the old George Benson in quite some time and I must admit, I kinda missed him. Then one night while I was driving home from a gig, he showed up via the radio station playing a new tune he’d just released. I visited there with him a while and then found myself pulling over to the side of the road so I could give him my full attention.

“Poquito Spanish, Poquito Funk” is a burnished, nouveau-Latin, funk piece; the production quality will probably never sound dated in any bad way. In fact, both the production and the groove are to die for. George plays the vocal roles of some urban characters in the intro before he graces us with the melody in octaves first, then finally adds his unison voice to his guitar, the last of his stylistic trademarks. His voice accompanies the first part of the solo, perfectly following his moves from octaves to double-stops and back. In part two of the solo he features his single-line playing, at first with the pick, but quickly switches to the thumb. His ideas are as harmonically compelling as ever, but with more thoughtful probing and emotional depth. I like the fact that he plays his most interesting stuff jazz-wise without the pick. He’s havin’ a good ol’ time, and has nothing to prove. As one of his alter ego characters says to him during the track, he’s still the baddest.

Reviewer: Bobby Broom


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