The guitarist’s 15th album helped define smooth jazz and the future of music despite lacking the punch of his past releases.
Smooth jazz gets a bad rap. Like the 45 degree angles holding the letter “z” together, jazz was meant to be jagged, favoring flash over form and personality over perfection. Smooth jazz, on the other hand, boils the genre down into earworms that could loop on endlessly, becoming prime fodder for elevators and weather channels alike.
Critics have every right to disparage smooth jazz. Everything that Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue stands for — originality, imperfection, spontaneity — gets lost in a subgenre that waters down jazz’s best qualities. Still, the ledgers of the smooth jazz hall of fame (no, that doesn’t really exist) aren’t filled with talentless hacks and their musical monstrosities. They’re rife with important musicians, at least one of whom has sold records with the best of his more traditional jazz brothers.
George Benson is one of those smooth jazz mavens. He released Breezin’ in 1976, his 15th album and debut on Warner Bros. In a word, the album is safe. It roams somewhere between the realms of futuristic 1960s soul and prehistoric 1990s R&B, carefully laying down Benson’s guitar lines like buckets of smoothed out beach sand.
Though the album would see the retelling of acclaimed hits like “This Masquerade” and “Affirmation,” as well as the use of a 40-piece string ensemble conducted by Claus Ogerman, none of its melodies are anywhere near as varied as Benson’s work on Benson Burner, which also released in 1976 but was partially recorded a decade prior to Breezin’.
And yet, Breezin’ has endured the test of time, not only as a genre-spawning classic, solidifying what would eventually become the oft-lampooned smooth jazz genre, but also as the forefather for hip-hop and lo-fi cuts that directly praise the album for its tameness.
Breezin’ Through the Charts
By the 1970s, jazz was a caricature of its former self. Though cats like Dave Brubeck and were still performing and recording sets that typified traditional jazz — featuring ambitious percussion, rambling horns and soothing piano — the genre was well into finding its footing in fusion. The decade started with Miles Davis’ electric embrace on Bitches Brew and continued into Herbie Hancock experimenting with all manner of instruments, from synthesizers to beer bottles, to produce Head Hunters. A year later, Bob James pushed an underwater symphony on “Nautilus” off his second studio album, One.
Two years after that, audiences would hear Dexter Wansel steer them toward the cosmos with Life on Mars, while Roy Ayers’ vibraphone would bask in the spotlight on Everybody Loves the Sunshine. Each of these albums would become staples in music history, influencing sampling techniques while redefining offshoots from a classical understanding of jazz.
Despite the indefatigable importance of these albums, it was Benson’s Breezin’ that would reign supreme, at least commercially. Earning triple-platinum status by 1984, Breezin’ was vaunted to a level comparable to Davis’ Kind of Blue, which is quite possibly the most important piece of jazz of all time. This success came in spite of criticism against an otherwise unambitious album. In 1991, the LA Times called 1976 a “bad year” for the jazz guitar, citing Benson’s embrace of lukewarm vocals over his typically stellar guitar work.
Now, 44 years removed from Breezin’ rebooting Benson’s career as a pop-jazz sensation, it’s clear why the sickly sweet album saw so much success. In part, Warner Bros., which stole Benson away from Creed Taylor Inc., pushed the guitar virtuoso farther than any indie-label could. (Bob James’ One was also a CTI release that, while incredibly influential, pales in comparison to Benson’s Warner Bros. sales.)
But just as important are Breezin’s flighty melodies, which have become the foundation for decades of hip-hop samples. In 1988, DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince reworked the title track into “Time to Chill” which, in Will Smith’s words, was a. “rap record that had the pace of a slow song, quiet storm.” The record was a shift away from the calamitous and scratch heavy compositions on the duo’s first album. Instead it signaled their growth toward a more rhythmic branch of hip-hop, evidenced by their future use of samples on “Summertime,” “You Got It (Donut),” and “Can’t Wait to Be with You.”
Likewise, Benson’s “Affirmation,” a cover of the José Feliciano original, became part of a lineage of hip-hop influences possibly best captured by the late Nujabes. “Counting Stars” which melds Feliciano’s melody with Frank Sinatra vocals takes nods from Benson’s cover, dampening Feliciano’s guitar work in favor of a softer, smooth jazz-like composition. Producer Jinsang followed a similar path on 2015s “A Better Tomorrow,” which takes a brief Benson riff and loops it beneath record crackling and boom bap drums.
These interpretations speak to Breezin’s importance, whether the album is rightfully “jazzy” or not. Benson would parlay the momentum from Breezin’ into two platinum- and four gold-selling albums over the following decade, becoming a poster child for musical flexibility. In hindsight, he’s a champion of the crossover, a trait that is arguably the biggest influence any piece of jazz has to offer.