George Benson's concert Wednesday night at the Hollywood Bowl was billed as a tribute to Nat King Cole. Even before he really got going, though, the pop-jazz singer-guitarist revealed that he'd actually taken the stage in honor of two people: Cole, whose crossover success helped establish a model for Benson's own, and George Duke, the jazz-funk hybridist who died last month in Los Angeles.
A guiding light, an adventurous soul, a musical visionary – Benson described Duke in various ways. Yet his admiration never seemed to run deeper than when he called Duke "a great businessman," and indeed it was that quality that most informed Wednesday's gig, which felt above all like a paycheck.
In June, Benson released "Inspiration: A Tribute to Nat King Cole," a lavishly produced set of songs popularized (and often made indelible) by the midcentury sophisticate: "Nature Boy," "Walkin' My Baby Back Home," "Route 66," "Unforgettable."
The idea driving the album is the parallel between Cole's and Benson's careers; both men started out as jazz instrumentalists (Cole a pianist, Benson on guitar) before finding wider fame as smooth pop vocalists. It's an affectionate endeavor, considerably warmer than most cash-grab tribute discs.
But if Benson's identification with Cole gives "Inspiration" a sense of artistic purpose, it didn't quite survive the music's presentation at the Bowl, where Benson coasted through an hour's worth of Cole material with a frictionlessness bordering on detachment.
"Don't forget: There is a recording of this show," he said at one point in reference to "Inspiration," which he said was available for purchase. Then he reminded the audience with a mischievous flare of his eyes that "gas is $50 a gallon, and I'm driving a Rolls-Royce Phantom."
Benson's businesslike approach didn't mean the concert lacked for pleasure.
No less a showbiz professional than his idol, he sang with a velvety precision that in its way made passion seem beside the point. If you closed your eyes (as Benson often did), you might've sworn you were listening to Cole himself, particularly during "Mona Lisa" and "When I Fall in Love," in which he expertly channeled Cole's easy navigation of unusual intervals.
Ditto the lush beauty of Nelson Riddle's classic arrangements, skillfully reproduced here by Benson's five-piece band along with a chorus and an orchestra. In "(I Love You) for Sentimental Reasons" the players were tapping into a vein of Old Hollywood romance that will always have a home at this historic venue.
But all those respectfully borrowed sounds left scant room for Benson, who only picked up his guitar a few times, most memorably for a scrubby little solo in "Straighten Up and Fly Right" that briefly disrupted the evening's silky surface. (Opening Wednesday's show, Dianne Reeves provided a few more ripples with freewheeling renditions of Marvin Gaye's "I Want You" and "Dreams" by Fleetwood Mac.)
Toward the end of his set, following the Cole songs, Benson finally seemed ready to put more of himself into the music. We'd scored an invitation to "the Benson party," he said, a place presumably soundtracked by his influential light-funk hits from the late '70s and early '80s.
But after perfunctory takes on “On Broadway” and “Give Me the Night” – the latter of which