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Less than a month after The Beatles released Abbey Road, George Benson entered the Rudy Van Gelder Studios and began crafting a brilliant jazz tribute to the Fab Four’s final studio masterpiece. Under the direction of Creed Taylor, and armed with wide-ranging arrangements by Don Sebesky and a remarkable cast of sidemen — including keyboardists Herbie Hancock and Bob James, saxophonist Sonny Fortune, trumpeter Freddie Hubbard, flutist Hubert Laws, bassists Ron Carter and Gerry Jemmott and drummer Idris Muhammad — Benson recontextualized The Beatles’ music while maintaining the magic of the original songs.
Benson’s silky, Wes Montgomery-influenced leads are spare yet full of feeling. He seems to revel in the ingenious melodies, his guitar almost singing the lyrics at times. And speaking of singing, Benson does that, as well. His velvety, impassioned vocals never sounded better, from the opening “Golden Slumbers,” a baroque-sounding take on the Paul McCartney lullaby utilizing strings and harpsichord, to a late-night, last-call at the jazz club version of “Oh! Darling” to a lovely, intimate read of “Here Comes the Sun.”
Of course, with the cream of the CTI crop at his disposal, Benson also dives into the funk. His taut, sinewy lines ride a fat groove spiked with flute and Fender Rhodes on “Come Together,” while congas and brass underline a blues-powered “I Want You (She’s So Heavy),” featuring liquid-fire solos from Benson and Hubbard.
Following the suite-like construction of the original Abbey Road, Sebesky’s arrangements flow from one song to the next, while not adhering to that album’s track order, nor even including every tune. The concluding trifecta of “Something,” “Octopus’ Garden” and “The End” reveals the breadth of Benson’s, his musicians’ and Sebesky’s scope, from warm balladry to joyful big band to double-time, percussion-fueled funk. The Other Side of Abbey Road presents an affectionate yet fresh look at The Beatles from a distinctly Afro-centric perspective. — Bob Weinberg