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June 26, 2013 • Music Diary, Reviews

A Trio of Terrific Tribute Albums!

George Benson - Inspiration: A Tribute to Nat King Cole

George Benson – Inspiration: A Tribute to Nat King Cole

I recently reviewed Al Di Meola’s ‘All Your Life’ album, which is a tribute to his lifelong love of the music of The Beatles. Tribute albums have been made since the dawn of recorded music, but have been especially popular since Hal Willner introduced the current formats in 1981. It has become a cliche for older rock and pop singers to put out their version of the ‘Great American Songbook’ at this point, and while tributes are often heartfelt, theme albums like that are usually a more cynical ‘cheap to make, easy to sell’ affair.

So when a group of tributes come out that are all actually worth buying, it is news – and there are actually FIVE tributes recently released (or soon to be released) that are worthwhile: the three mentioned here, ‘All Your Life’, and an upcoming release I’ll be reviewing in the coming weeks. The three albums reviewed here include a wonderful ‘traditional’ tribute album, a tribute to the music of one country, and original music inspired by a beautiful place. Let’s take a look!

Bill Frisell – Big Sur
Bill Frisell Big Sur
Bill Frisell – Big Sur

General Impressions:

Bill Frisell is an amazing guitarist and composer, and has also been keen at assembling enigmatic bands that allow for his compositional style to probe far and wide, all while building long-standing musical relationships that have grown into standing groups. With Big Sur he takes his most recent trio and merges it with his 858 quartet to end up with what is essentially a string quartet with drums … and a guitar substituted for one of the violins (Jenny Scheinman is the other violin, with Eyvind Kang Eyvind Kang
on viola, Hank Roberts on cello, and Rudy Royston on drums). The composition suite was commissioned by the Monterey Jazz Festival, and is a multi-genre look at the beauty of Big Sur, based on Frisell spending months at the remote Glen Deven Ranch. It is something not easily placed in a genre, feeling more like a soundtrack to a landscape. The landscape of Big Sur has a beauty that Frisell does a masterful job capturing in his compositions and the group bring to life.

My Favorite Song: “The Music of Glen Deven Ranch” – while the album has plenty of twists and turns, everything you need to know is here: multiple genres, the gorgeous interplay and combined through-composed melodies and open improvisation, and the way Frisell launches you straight into his journey.

Here is the press kit video:

Scott Hamilton – Swedish Ballads and More
Scott Hamilton - Swedish Ballads and More
Scott Hamilton – Swedish Ballads and More

General Impressions:

Scott Hamilton is a tenor saxophonist I started listening to in the mid-80s with his recording ‘The Right Time’, but since he plays in a swing-era style and I was heavy into avant-garde music at that time I have no clue why I bought it. But on ‘Swedish Ballads and More’ I am reminded why I love his music – it is incredibly well crafted straight-ahead jazz in which compositions are respectfully covered and melodies sensitively interpreted. For this recording Hamilton turns his broadly vibratoed tone to songs from and inspired by Sweden, along with pianist Jan Lundgren, bassist Jesper Lundgaard and drummer Kristian Leth. Starting out with the Swedish folk song Miles Davis re-interpreted into ‘Dear Old Stockholm’, Hamilton covers ground that sounds distinctly like gorgeous American jazz of the early 1950s – and that is just fine by me. These songs and the band playing them are all well suited, because they remind me of artists like Lester Young and Dexter Gordon moving to Europe back in the 1960s and playing wonderful swing for appreciative audiences. Scott Hamilton will never be in fashion or trendy, but he is always tasteful and lyrical, and this is the best I have heard from him in several years.

My Favorite Song: “Swing in F” – my image of ex-pats playing in a smoky bar in Stockholm largely comes from this song, a mid-tempo song that simultaneously embraces swing and hard-bop stylings and would be a great showpiece for just about any quartet.

Here is a recording of a quintet:

George Benson – Inspiration: A Tribute to Nat King Cole
George Benson - Inspiration A Tribute to Nat King Cole
George Benson – Inspiration: A Tribute to Nat King Cole

General Impressions:

George Benson shares some history with Nat King Cole – both started as vocalists, became known as instrumentalists, but ultimately earned their greatest fame as vocalists in popular music. While Benson always retained fame for guitar, Cole’s piano skills have mostly faded from memory. But Cole was immensely influential on Benson, and now he has paid tribute to his idol. On this gorgeous set of ballads, Benson is backed by the Henry Mancini Institute Orchestra with Randy Waldman conducting all but the last song (which was conducted by legend Nelson Riddle). He is joined by guests such as Wynton Marsalis, Idina Menzel, Judith Hill and Till Brönner. The arrangements feature Benson’s guitar, but the star of the show is Benson paying vocal tribute to Nat Cole – and it is an amazingly successful album. Sweet and mellow but never dreary, it is a fun and playful and fitting tribute.

My Favorite Song: “When I Fall in Love ” – picking a single song is hard, as ‘Unforgettable’ would be an easy choice. But this song has been a favorite ballad since I first heard Miles Davis play it. Here Benson is joined by Broadway star Idina Menzel in a tender and stirring version that also allows Benson to stretch out on guitar … and I was reminded of how songs like this are always brutally over-sung on American Idol, making the subtle interplay here even more touching.

Here is the press kit video:

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