Saturday, December 6, 2014

Blu-Spec CD of the Month - "George Benson: White Rabbit"

Blu-Spec CD of the Month
George Benson: "White Rabbit" (CTI KICJ 2313)

Produced by Creed Taylor
Engineered (recorded & mixed) by Rudy Van Gelder
Recorded on November 23, 24 & 30, 1971 at Van Gelder Studios (Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey)
Cover Photo: Pete Turner
Album Design: Bob Ciano

Benson's masterpiece for CTI, the superbly thrilling "White Rabbit" (recorded in 1971 & released in 1972), became an instant fusion classic, featuring the signature title track arrangement of the Jefferson Airplane classic – a 1972 Grammy® nominee for Best Jazz Performance by a Group. Other highlights: "El Mar" (the only track with Earl Klugh) and a superb adaptation of Villa-Lobos' "Little Train," on which Herbie Hancock performs one of his best Fender Rhodes solos ever!

Arranged & conducted by Don Sebesky, it also includes nice renditions of Michel Legrand's love theme for the "Summer of '42" soundtrack (aka "The Summer Knows," on which Airto uses caxixi, pandeiro, bells and woodblocks) and The Mamas & The Papas' "California Dreaming" (previously produced by Creed Taylor & arranged by Sebesky as an instrumental hit for Wes Montgomery's "California Dreaming" Verve album, back in 1966).

The all-star cast features Ron Carter (acoustic bass only), Billy Cobham (drums), Airto Moreira (not only as a percussionist but also providing wordless vocals on "El Mar", "White Rabbit" and even as the lead singer on "Little Train"), John Frosk (lead trumpet on the title track), Hubert Laws (a short but perfect flute solo on "White Rabbit" too), Phil Kraus (a veteran of The Creed Taylor Orchestra in the late 50s, here using tympani on the title track, Chinese gong on "Little Train," and subtle vibes on "Summer of '42" and "California Dreaming"), harpist Gloria Agostini (to whom Sebesky wrote ingenious charts that make her part of the rhythm section), and specially the Spanish-tinged acoustic guitar playing (in 4 of the 5 tracks) of the underrated master Jay Berliner, the unsung hero of this project.

That's what CTI's top connoisseur wrote about this reissue: 

Guitarist George Benson had already recorded one album for CTI (Beyond the Blue Horizon) plus three notable albums for Creed Taylor’s CTI production house at A&M (an additional album recorded during this time was issued years later) when he waxed White Rabbit in November 1971.

White Rabbit ranks among the strongest and most consistently satisfying and artistic of all of George Benson’s jazz albums, even though each and every one of his CTI albums contains something of significant worth.

Recorded under the auspices of arranger Don Sebesky, who had arranged Benson’s earlier Shape of Things to Come (1969) and The Other Side of Abbey Road (1970), White Rabbit is probably now best known as one of the earliest recordings of Detroit-based guitarist Earl Klugh, who was 17 at the time of this recording (on Benson’s excellent “El Mar” only – yes, he solos briefly too…Klugh joined Benson’s band in 1973). Elsewhere, guitarist Jay Berliner nicely counters Benson’s guitar and is most notable on the album’s track.

Issued in May 1972, White Rabbit overflows with exceptionally strong performances by both Benson and Sebesky, most notably on two hippie-era rock odes, The Mamas & the Papas’ “California Dreaming” and Jefferson Airplane’s title track. Both pieces were no doubt brought to the session by arranger Don Sebesky, a specialist then of transforming such rock staples into dynamic jazz performances (he had earlier written “Big Mama Cass” in tribute to the vocalist from The Mamas & the Papas). It’s no stretch to imagine that Creed Taylor was on board for these covers, imaginatively reconsidered by Sebesky (who uses an effectively minimal deployment of brass and winds throughout) and brought to life by Benson’s warm and reassuring guitarisms.

Benson also covers Heitor Villa-Lobos’ “Little Train” (aka “The Little Train of Caipira”), the second of nine suites written by the Brazilian composer. Producer Creed Taylor had previously covered the popular fifth suite of this musical series in recordings by Lalo Schifrin (Verve, 1964) and Soul Flutes (CTI/A&M, 1968 – arranged by Don Sebesky) and would later capture the piece on the 1972 CTI album by Jackie & Roy, Time & Love, again, arranged by Don Sebesky.

Benson is accompanied here by Herbie Hancock on electric piano (who is bountifully featured throughout), Ron Carter on bass and Billy Cobham on drums, all of whom were first captured together on Benson’s Giblet Gravy (Verve, 1967). Hancock and Carter had, of course, also played with George Benson on Miles Davis’ Miles in the Sky (Columbia, 1968). So these guys were not unfamiliar with each other’s creativity.

Hubert Laws solos on flute for “White Rabbit” while trumpeter John Frosk solos on the title track and the substantial “El Mar.” Airto Moriera is featured on percussion throughout and takes several audibly vocal turns on “Little Train” and “El Mar.”

The excellent and artistically and commercially satisfying White Rabbit was nominated for a 1972 Grammy Award for Best Jazz Performance – Group (in competition with another CTI performance by Joe Farrell for “Outback”) but lost to yet another CTI performance of “First Light” – also arranged by Don Sebesky – by Freddie Hubbard.

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