Guitarist George Benson can’t win. If he releases a jazz only recording his R&B, soul and smooth jazz fans will be turned off. He goes the other way, the jazz fans will again complain about how he wastes his time on inferior material. It’s not for nothing Allmusic.com lists, out of all of Benson’s recordings, the heavily overtly jazz oriented Beyond The Blue Horizon as their only album pick from his voluminous catalog.
The solution is to try to play to all of his audiences. This has had various degrees of success, the good including Absolute Benson and the not so fortunate being That’s Right. On Songs And Stories, Benson finally gets the mix right. Opening with James Taylor’s "Don’t Let Me Be Lonely Tonight" and delivering later on "Someday We’ll All Be Free," Benson delivers music that would have fit perfectly on his Weekend In L.A. recording, understated vocals mixed with lovely guitar playing. "Show Me The Love," on the other hand, with its hot horn licks and lush string backgrounds, easily reminds one of his pop "Give Me The Night" heyday. This is as it should be since it was written by the same man, Rod Temperton.
For the smooth jazz fans, "Exotica" mixes a sweet hook with wordless vocalizations and a trippy beat to great effect. For the soul audience, Lalah Hathaway duets with Benson on a brand new Bill Withers composition "A Telephone Call Away." The two get so wonderfully down deep into the blues you can’t imagine they’ll ever be washed clean again. In addition, the backing sax solo is so 1970s it can’t help but remind one of Dave Sanborn’s pop work of that era.
There are missteps. Norman Brown is wasted on the slowish, hip-hop oriented "Nuthin’ But A Party." Brown, a fellow guitarist who is strong in his ability to cross over genres like Benson, plays it a little safe with one of his guitar heroes. Putting these two together on a track makes perfect programming, but the backing drum-track is way too lackluster and stagnant to give them room to light fires.
Even though Benson finally gets the stylistic mix right, in the end he’s still probably going to disappoint many of those in his audience who would like to see him focus on just one of his many musical sides. He is, after all, perhaps the greatest jazz guitarist of all time, as well as a soulfully groovy R&B and pop master. In truth, it’s time for his entire audience to realize he’ll probably never focus on just one aspect of his art any more, but this recording comes as close as he’s ever come in successfully mixing it all together.