George Benson doesn't seem the likeliest candidate to deliver a Nat King Cole tribute -- at least not one that emphasizes revived simulations of Cole's classic hits. But there he was Friday at Walt Disney Concert Hall, with a large string orchestra and his own band, strolling through one familiar Cole selection after another.
At first, the differences were striking. Cole's voice was light and airy; Benson's emphasized force and power. Cole's piano playing was -- for most of his career -- an integral adjunct to his singing; Benson largely approached the Cole songs without his guitar, as a solo vocalist.
Benson tried to set aside those differences in the first Cole number, "Nature Boy," with a vocal lightness of tone and articulation that came very close to an impression. But Benson is a musician at heart, and -- even in his efforts to recall Cole's pronunciation and phrasing -- he still retained the lift, the swing and the warmth that are central to his own creative powers.
"Mona Lisa," "Stardust" and "Looking Back" followed, Benson gradually setting aside the Cole mannerisms, reaching instead for his own, more appropriately contemporized rendering, without losing touch with the Cole ambience. Oddly enough, it was his ability to combine those two qualities that kept the Cole reference alive -- far more than the thin and unsupportive sound of the string orchestra. If the orchestral arrangements were, as Benson suggested, the original charts, then the sound on the Cole recordings was far superior to what was heard via the uncertain qualities of amplification in Disney Hall.
Both the timbres and the energy picked up considerably during a set of tunes associated with the Cole trio -- including a swinging "Route 66" and a wryly humorous "Straighten Up and Fly Right" -- in which the orchestra took a bye and Benson was accompanied by his own sextet.
It wasn't until Benson said farewell to the Cole portion of the evening and dug into his own estimable collection of hits that both he and the capacity audience finally came fully to life. There's no telling how often he has sung and played numbers such as "This Masquerade," "Give Me the Night" and "On Broadway." But Benson's roots as an improvising jazz artist continue to generate new ideas and an irresistibly propulsive swing every time he performs them.
Add to that his marvelous vocal exchange with guest singer Patti Austin on "Moody's Mood for Love" and a spontaneous scat-sung blues, and the real connection between Cole and Benson became clear -- a connection not based on simulations and greatest hits but on the ability of two fine jazz artists to successfully, and musically, reach out to a beyond-genre audience.