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Bargain Bin Babylon: George Benson: Breezin’

“It was less a shift and more akin to a conversion.” That’s how author Haruki Murakami, in his 2017 novel Killing Commendatore, describes an aging Japanese artist’s unexpected development from young modern artist to elderly traditionalist. The same might be said of jazz guitarist George Benson’s pivot to pop music with his 1976 album Breezin’, a multi-platinum seller that became one of the best-selling jazz records in chart history. It can also be said of a listener who cut their jazz teeth on shredders like Sonny Sharrock and Pete Cosey, but after long dismissing Top 40, learned to appreciate the simple pleasures of a perfect pop song. In each of these cases, it’s like the scales fell off one’s ears. And in the case of Breezin, this experience, in the vinyl format for which it was made, is as accessible as your local thrift store, where Benson’s albums are in generous supply.

The Pittsburgh-born guitarist began his professional career as a sideman for soul jazz organist Jack McDuff in the early ‘60s, when Benson was just 19. By the ‘70s, Benson had moderate commercial success with the slick fusion of the CTI label; his 1974 album Bad Benson is one of the highlights of this era, with an inspired version of the Paul Desmond standard “Take Five.” Even at his most inventive, Benson never went outside—Robert Christgau complained in a pithy dismissive review of the 1977 album In Flight, “Turn those amps up!” But even in a middle-of-the-road jazz tradition, Benson had a defining tone and recognizable swing. Still, as successful as his CTI records were, he entered a whole new level with his debut for Warner Bros. Records.

According to Benson’s 2014 memoir, he was skeptical when WEA exec Bob Krasnow approached him for a major league deal. And Benson wasn’t too keen on the Leon Russell song that producer Tommy LiPuma kept pushing on him. What good would it do him to cover a song that had already been recorded by the Carpenters and Helen Reddy? After a couple of days of rehearsals, Benson and his group got it down in a few takes, and with a little engineering help to get Benson‘s vocal the way he heard it in his head, and though he didn’t expect anything to come of it, “This Masquerade” introduced the airwaves to a voice that would soon be everywhere.

Breezin’ was Benson’s 15th album as a leader. The yellow background and parallel lines on the cover suggest a school notebook, apt since the album turned out to be a template for a lucrative pop career. With its melancholy croon, “Masquerade” was the moody track to plug, but the opener set the scene with an all-timer that perfectly suited the easy-going title. Originally recorded by Gabor Szabo, Bobby Womack’s “Breezin’”was the epitome of easy listening, Benson’s version adding gentle figures including a nod to “Theme from a Summer Place,” a defining muzak melody. But from the flute overture that opens the track to the lightly funky rhythm and crisp, lilting melody, it’s guaranteed to lighten your mood, no small achievement in these tense times.

The rest of the album plays out in variations of this new sound: highly commercial, comfortable timbres engineered for a pleasing clarity; there’s no false note, no electrical distortion, no coloring outside the lines. This is purely music for pleasure, and while that may lead to charges of selling out, this doesn’t deserve Christgau’s accusations of “mush.” This is the sound of musical communication in its purest form; to go back to Murakami’s fictional painter in Killing Commendatore, the narrator notes that the artist’s modern phase was technically proficient and even stunning, but “something was missing.” That something emerged when the painter returned to tradition. In Benson’s case, his shift was not to the past but to a comforting present, stage-of-the-art pop that not only topped the jazz charts but made #1 in pop as well. He made money for his growing family and entertainment for millions.

Don’t let the lush string arrangements make you think this is just common schlock. Closing track “Lady” begins with those strings, and in an earlier era such orchestrations were thought to lend jazz an air of class. For this “Lady” the string evokes not class so much as the start of an aural seduction, leading into a mood that strikes some of the somber notes of “This Masquerade” with the airiness of the title track. This is a gorgeous, irresistible sound, and the vinyl goes for peanuts, a little soft crackle adding to the sensitive ‘70s time-machine. Benson would lean into pop for the rest of his career, with vocal hits like “Give Me the Night ” and “Turn Your Love Around” some of the best pop/R&B of the ‘80s. Breezin’ sent him down that road, and its modest, reliable groove is perfect pop.

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