Benson makes another conscious nod to that period on Songs and Stories (Concord), his latest studio album. Earlier this month in the New York Times music journalist Jon Caramanica wrote, “Adult soul, as practiced by Maxwell, K’Jon and others, borrows from classic soul in song structure and is preoccupied with more mature themes relevant to an older audience. Twenty years ago some of these records might have been called ‘quiet storm,’ and nowadays there’s overlap between smooth jazz, gospel and adult-oriented R&B.”
Benson may be a few generations older than Maxwell and company, but he’s been blending jazz, R&B, and pop for decades now. In fact Songs and Stories marks his 45th anniversary in the recording business, and along with fellow ’70s hit makers like Bill Withers, his music has helped pave the way for the younger crowd.
Withers, who’s been much less active as a performer in the past quarter-century, penned “A Telephone Call Away” for Songs and Stories. Written in his signature down-home style, it’s a song about two longtime friends — possibly former lovers — that allows Benson and duet partner Lalah Hathaway to playfully ad-lib off each other. Up top she sings, “Small things about you that I’ve never liked,” to which he replies, “Whatchoo talkin’ ’bout, girl?”
Just as Benson was becoming a household name in the ’70s, so was Lalah’s father, Donny Hathaway, whose song “Someday We’ll All Be Free” is covered on Songs and Stories; though Benson’s version doesn’t reach the heights of Aretha Franklin’s on the 1992 Malcolm X soundtrack, it’s still a standout cut. The same can’t be said for his cover of James Taylor’s “Don’t Let Me Be Lonely Tonight,” which is unfortunately too laid-back for the subject matter. Of course, once Ronald Isley’s mesmerizing interpretation landed on turntables in 1973 courtesy of the Isley Brothers’ 3+3 album, it was unlikely that any other singer would be able to wring further heartache and desperation from the song. It’s the definitive version. (Taylor debuted “Don’t Let Me Be Lonely Tonight” shortly after Bill Withers came out with “Use Me,” making 1972 the unofficial Year of the Man Whore.)
Benson does his best work here on originals, including “Show Me the Love,” written by former Toto bandmates David Paich and Steve Lukather. It’s reminiscent of “Turn Your Love Around,” the 1981 hit cowritten by Lukather, and features quick horn blasts and a light but sturdy groove; Benson sounds like he’s having a ball. His voice is still in great shape, and his fingers are as nimble as ever on Lamont Dozier’s “Living in High Definition,” where he receives fine support from his band: coproducer Marcus Miller on bass, Greg Phillinganes on keys, John Robinson on drums, and Jubu on guitar.
Songs and Stories stumbles when the smooth jazz becomes too anonymous (“Exotica”) or when Benson sounds like he’s out to prove something. Take, for example, his cover of the United We Funk All-Stars’ “Nuthin’ But a Party.” At the beginning of the song he declares, “We got a funky track for you, baby.” No, baby, you don’t. And when special guest Norman Brown says, “Playin’ with my hero, y’all,” in the middle of the song, it comes across as a somewhat forced tribute, an uncharacteristic move for a mellow cat of Benson’s stripe.
Rod Temperton’s songwriting contribution, “Family Reunion” (cowritten by Catero Colbert, and not to be confused with the O’Jays’ song of the same name), won’t make you forget “Give Me the Night” or “Love x Love,” but like “A Telephone Call Away,” it’s a good example of the adult soul Jon Caramanica spotlighted in his Times piece, which also mentioned R&B artist Avant’s recent cover of Christopher Cross’s “Sailing.” Songs and Stories closes with an instrumental version of that Grammy-winning hit from 1980, the year when “Give Me the Night” and Ambrosia’s “Biggest Part of Me,” among others, were also doing their part to cross-pollinate soft rock and R&B, even if no one knew at the time what the results would sound like almost 30 years later.
The genres of soft rock, adult soul, and smooth jazz can lower your blood pressure (or clog your rock ‘n’ roll-loving arteries, depending on your tastes), but their free health benefits are also why “Nuthin’ But a Party” is so unfunky in this particular setting — Benson shouldn’t have to try so hard when modern maturity sounds this hip.
Songs and Stories is available at Amazon.com.