This A&M/CTI debut album by George Benson signaled the arrival of a true star in the jazz scene. Creed Taylor signed Benson immediately after Wes Montgomery's passing in 1968 -- he was being groomed for it by Verve's house producer, Esmond Edwards, and arranger, Tom McIntosh, before he ever came to CTI. Taylor paired Benson with arranger Don Sebesky (who had done plenty of work on Montgomery's A&M sides) and engineer Rudy Van Gelder. Herbie Hancock and Ron Carter (both members of the Miles Davis Quintet with whom Benson had guested earlier that year), bassist Richard Davis, and pianist Hank Jones were all guests. Benson's core band for these dates included organist Charlie Covington, drummer Leo Morris, and conguero Johnny Pacheco. The usual strings, supplemental horns, and backing voices in certain places (all Sebesky trademarks) are in place as well. All the stuff is here for Benson to fit neatly into the Montgomery mold -- except for one thing: Benson is a strong-willed artist. He wasn't going anywhere he didn't want to go and insisted on a certain amount of control on the date, and it's all for the better. This is one steamy little album that starts innocently enough with a lithe soul-jazz tune called "Footin' It," written by Benson and Sebesky. The flutes and cellos answer the head played by Benson. The strings fall in exotically as Benson begins to stretch and Covington answers with funk. Benson's guitar is not as smooth as Montgomery's; there is a defined edge in it and it's deep in the cut. Another interesting move was an experiment by Benson to use the Varitone device with Les Paul-like variable speed overdubs on his guitar. Covington alternately talks back and drones as Davis digs hard into the changes and keeps it simple but pronounced. Pacheco, like Benson, just goes nuts. By the time the strings and flute enter near the end your mind is already blown. Barry Mann wrote the cut as the theme song for a teensploitation flick called Wild in the Streets, and it was performed by Davie Allan & the Arrows. Benson turns it into a solid psychedelic soul-jazz number -- no grooves get lost; they just get under your skin.
And so it goes through this set, from the radical revision of "Chattanooga Choo Choo" to Teddy White and Aretha Franklin's "Don't Let Me Lose This Dream," a sweeping, slightly Latinized soul number given full jazz treatment -- the only facsimile concession that Benson makes to the Montgomery memory on the disc. Sebesky's huge brass arrangements pump the tune into something really progressive and tight. Covington soars on it as well, but leaves plenty of space for Benson's righteous solo. Benson contributes his own nocturnal jazzy blues with "Shape of Things That Are and Were," as if to say "I'm not Wes; that was yesterday." Sebesky's horn chart is punchy and underscores the blues in the tune, and the guitarist plays a killer solo in a relaxed, open manner, seducing the listener for the closer. Introduced by a lonesome, blues-drenched harmonica playing solo, as if in a freight yard, Benson and Sebesky turn in a funky jazz rave-up of Boyce & Hart's hit "Last Train to Clarksville." Other than the overly familiar melody line, this cut just takes off, with big bright horns, Morris double-timing the band, Carter half-timing it, and Benson digging into both multi-string chord leads and single-string leads that he twins with Covington's organ about halfway through his break -- this is the sendoff this brilliant album deserves. Shape of Things to Come is the true signal of Benson's arrival, not only as a major soloist, but as an artist who refuses to be pinned down four decades later. He's a pop star, a genius guitarist, a singer, a songwriter, and even now his own man. This is an album that deserves its classic status and wears it well these many years later.