LP REVIEW: George Benson – Beyond the Blue Horizon

George Benson – Beyond the Blue Horizon
(Speakers Corner/CTI 6009. LP review by Andrew Cartmel)

Beyond the Blue Horizon, recorded by Rudy Van Gelder in 1971, was George Benson’s debut on CTI records and sees the guitar prodigy moving out of the shadow of Wes Montgomery and towards the sort of funky territory exemplified by Body Talk (reviewed here). That album featured Benson playing in the context of what was virtually a big band, but here he is accompanied by an admirably stripped-down small group of top players. It makes for a striking sound, and there is an agreeable hit of psychedelia to the proceedings, which points the way towards records like White Rabbit, which would be Benson’s next album for CTI.

Miles Davis’s So What? introduces us to the keyboard work of Clarence Palmer. He opens the tune with an ecclesiastical electric organ sound that rapidly becomes secular. Which is to say, he brings home the funk. There is a military march impulse opening up into a skeletal drum set piece by Jack DeJohnette while Ron Carter’s bass walks down the steps to the basement. And all through it Benson plays chords as big as houses, fast and effortless, throwing out measures that spiral furiously, like a cat chasing its tail.

The Gentle Rain by Luiz Bonfá begins with insistent churchy organ from Palmer and haiku plucking from the leader before blossoming beautifully with Benson’s guitar. The beseeching quality of the song is magnified by his virtuosic, repetitive riffing which delays melodic gratification in an almost erotic way. Mysterioso sonics come from what appears to be Ron Carter playing an electric cello (or a cello with an electric pickup), an eldritch sound that provides angular commentary like a string section in purgatory. Abetted by Palmer’s organ, this introduces the psychedelic element mentioned earlier — the summer of love wasn’t so long ago.

On All Clear, a George Benson original, Carter provides more electronica, buzzing and tweeting and swirling, to both contrast with and cushion the sharp edged clarity of Benson’s playing. DeJohnette is clipped and businesslike, then reins in and plays with a great, relaxed feeling of space. Another Benson composition Ode to a Kudu is delicate and meditative with a raw edge to the electric guitar that lends a mood of unadorned, pictorial simplicity. Methodical, sparing drums from DeJohnette and great, yearning sheets of sound from Carter float under Benson’s playing. Moving from the lyrical to the experimental Somewhere In The East is the third Benson original and percussionists Michael Cameron and Albert Nicholson lead us into an out-there excursion as Palmer’s organ chimes in and Benson’s strings cut through the thickening sound like a machete. Insistent, uneasy, and exciting.

This small group set throws Benson’s playing into sharp focus: there’s nowhere for him to hide—and no need for him to do so. What is exposed is consistently impressive, a relaxed mastery of his instrument. The minimal setting also shows how much Carter’s string work can add in terms of colours and textures, even hinting at orchestral forces. Beyond the Blue Horizon is a key album in the guitarist’s development and a great example of getting a big, rich sound out of a small unit. It also probably never sounded better on vinyl than this lush, lucid Speakers Corner reissue.

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