Jazz in Detroit relies heavily on tradition. This has never been simply a matter of local pride, but recognition of the unique musical history of the city and a consequence of robust community bonds. More often than not, a performance by a major Detroit jazz artist will include musicians of diverse generations, providing youngsters opportunities to learn on the stage alongside the elders.
One of the great statesmen of Motor City jazz is saxophonist George Benson. For years he has been playing in clubs, in show orchestra pits, and on recordings. In addition to playing jazz, he took part as a sideman in many of the classic Motown recordings during the Sixties and continued to do concert work with groups such as the Temptations. He has taught generations of saxophonists and has even published a book of saxophone etudes for improvisers.
Although he can adapt to any situation, Benson’s jazz playing is unique and immediately recognizable. His musical roots, especially his rhythmic concepts, lie in the swing era, enhanced by bebop, and then influenced to some degree by the work of John Coltrane and his associates. He has a characteristic personal sound on his horns, each of which he approaches in a very different manner: his alto saxophone sound combines the creamy approach of players such as Benny Carter with a bluesy inflection akin to Earl Bostic and a slight bite that works well on ballads and blues. His tenor sound is narrower and more focused but ringing, with a broad array of articulations and often filled with blues inflections. His ballads may be soft, but when he turns to pure blues, he goes down deep and brings out the rougher gritty urban profile of the form.
Recently Benson has been playing in a duo with pianist Glenn Tucker. Although relatively young, Tucker has been establishing a reputation as a versatile pianist who works in a broad range of stylistic contexts. He studied at the U-M under the tutelage of another Detroiter, Geri Allen, absorbing her stylistically broad way of thinking. Tucker leads a number of his own groups, often playing his own quite modern compositions, but in the duo with Benson, he works as accompanist and soloist to equal degrees. In this context he is more traditional and, following Benson’s example, works with blues inflections from various eras and with classic bebop phrasing and harmonic substitutions.
Benson composed all the tunes on their recently published CD, Dreamers, in a style that digs deep into the timeless aspects of jazz in a relaxed and yet emotionally direct manner. This is jazz stripped down to emotional essentials, with two masters of time who are in no need of bass and drums. They perform at Kerrytown Concert House on Friday, February 26.