In addition to serving as career-defining album titles from decades past, “Breathless” and “Breezin'” both literally and figuratively described the show put on by the two musicians who recorded those multimillion-selling sets – two famous, jazz-friendly artists whose current “Breezin’ and Breathless Tour” made its stop here in Chicago last weekend.
In a three-hour-long show at the Chicago Theatre on May 26, the popular adult-contemporary instrumentalist Kenny G “breathed” – and the even more time-tested guitarist/vocalist George Benson “breezed” through most of their respective hits (and some non-hits) as the two co-headlined a billing that has them traveling to 13 U. S. cities in five months.
Kenny G, whose 1992 diamond-certified album Breathless won him many awards, topped several charts and has sold more than 12 million copies, got things kicked off in an unexpected, but welcome, way: while standing on a platform smack in the middle of the audience only feet from where we sat.
Blowing notes from his signature soprano saxophone (he would later also use a tenor one), the talented musician remained on the main audience floor, turning in place as if to make sure that we each got an up-close-and-personal glimpse of the once-superstar, if for nothing more than to give us a photo-op with our smart phones. He graced us with this immediate presence for more than ten minutes before deciding that his rightful place was on the theatre’s more humbly sized stage.
It was Kenny G’s transition to that stage moments later that served as his set’s highlight…
While leading into his 1988 hit “Silhouette,” the sax virtuoso held a note so long that he was able to leave his earlier post, walk around in the audience, wave and give people hi-fives (with his free hand, of course), make his way to the stage and then – with that free hand – beckon the audience to acknowledge his band mates (which they did)…all while still blowing that same note.
In all Kenny G, born Kenneth Bruce Gorelick in Seattle, WA, blew that note with his sax for more than two minutes, giving new meaning to the word “Breathless” and leaving an awestruck audience wondering just what breathing technique he could have used to hold a note so long.
But G, who turns 61 this Tuesday, has been blowing that same soprano sax for more 40 years, making it “the longest relationship he’s ever had,” as he later quipped. His longtime familiarity with the instrument certainly was on display on this night.
And so was his showmanship.
Kenny G told jokes and had the audience laughing with him. “When you blow something for 40 years, it’ll tend to stay with you,” he joked. I certainly wasn’t expecting that from a man about whom I had created a more straight-laced image and whose look – particularly that famously long mane of curly hair – hasn’t changed in the 30 years since he first broke into the pop music scene.
Jokes aside, an added treat during G’s performance was the showcasing of his band mates, each of whom had a turn in the spotlight. The most impressive of those was the percussionist, who wowed us with his bongo set before leaving his post to take center stage. There, he showed off his skills for several minutes with an oversized tambourine that he beat and twirled in a way that was more like a magician than a musician…although he was certainly adept at being the former.
Kenny G didn’t mind sharing the spotlight with his stage mates for so long, which added to the improvisational feeling that jazz music was meant to evoke and which G and his band had no problem creating.
While watching this, though, I recalled that several jazz elitists have criticized Kenny G over the years, and that is likely because he’s sold millions and millions of albums to pop music fans – more than any instrumentalist in the modern era.
However, I found that G came across as a gracious man, not only with his band mates, but with his fans. There was the earlier opening when he stood among us in the audience. Then there was the CD-signing afterwards. There, as he signed mine, he told me that I had a “good radio voice,” something I’ve never heard before.
Indeed, Kenny G is still respected among many of his loyal fans and peer musicians alike.
That includes George Benson, a longtime “friend” of Kenny G’s and 74-year-old Pittsburgh, PA native who performed the second half of this show and delighted the crowd with most of his own beloved hits and those of other musicians whom he clearly admires.
I say “most” of his hits because there was one particular tune that Benson didn’t perform – one that had the crowd chanting in dismay by the time the theatre lights were brightened at the end of the show and the backing musicians left the stage.
“Broadway! Broadway! Broadway!,” they shouted, patiently and desperately waiting for an encore that would never happen.
“On Broadway” – Benson’s nearly 40-yr-old remake of the 1960s Drifters tune – is one of Benson’s three biggest chart hits, and arguably his most beloved one. Benson practically made the tune his own in 1978 with a self-affirming delivery and that famous line signaling his ability to “play this here guitar” as a reason we’d be hearing from him for years to come.
However, “On Broadway” was strangely omitted from this set list that included his other late-’70s remake – a discofied rendition of LTD’s “Love Ballad” – which nearly replicated his 1979 hit version, his remake of Donny Hathaway’s “The Ghetto” and, of course, Benson originals like “Love X Love,” “Lady Love Me” and the instrumental title track to his 1976 groundbreaking jazz-pop album, “Breezin'” (written by Bobby Womack).
There were also other interesting song choices, like “Nothing’s Gonna Change My Love For You,” the hit song Glenn Medeiros took the top ten in 1987 but George Benson recorded first (Benson’s version was only released as a single in Germany in 1984).
There were several tributes as well, including his instrumental rendition of Al Jarreau’s breezy 1983 pop tune, “Mornin’,” on which he was joined by Kenny G. Benson reminisced about the times he and Jarreau played and recorded together and how Jarreau “always knew what to do” when he approached a microphone.
Benson dipped into the Donny Hathaway well again, this time on the song “Where Is The Love?,” on which he was joined by his female background singer for the Roberta Flack parts.
And then there was the tribute to another friend, the ailing country-pop singer Glenn Campbell, whose lingering health issues have been well-documented. Benson saluted the “Rhinestone Cowboy” singer by performing his first big hit, “Wichita Lineman.” While it was odd seeing this noted jazz-soul musician performing Campbell’s country-pop classic, Benson certainly did the song justice.
He even played an instrumental version of “Lately” a song Stevie Wonder recorded in 1980. It was Wonder whose voice Benson’s was compared to when he released his 1976 breakthrough vocal smash, “This Masquerade,” which he thankfully also perform on this night.
While the songs Benson chose were all decent, and some of them reasonably big hits – either for himself or for other people – that one or more of them were played at the expense of “On Broadway” was, in hindsight, about as questionable a decision as an artist can make.
It would be like The Rolling Stones not doing “Start Me Up” and doing “Shattered” instead. Or Madonna doing “Hanky Panky” instead of “Like A Prayer.” Sure these artists have other big hits to make up for those omissions, but fans are likely betting the cost of a concert ticket that they’ll be hearing that one signature hit, if nothing else.
Despite not doing “On Broadway,” there were some crowd-pleasers, like “Turn Your Love Around” and “Moody’s Mood for Love,” the latter of which he was joined again by his backing musician to do the female parts.
In many of the tunes, Benson displayed his immense talent as a lead guitarist and when he wasn’t straight-singing or scat-singing, he often employed his trademark of vocally mimicking the guitar while playing it, something few others can do so well.
It was a technique he used for his biggest hit, which served as the show’s closer.
That would be “Give Me The Night,” a song that over the years has no doubt earned its “encore” status (although Benson saved us from the annoying teaser of leaving the stage and coming back to set it up).
“Give Me The Night” had the crowd on its feet dancing, clapping and singing along. And many of us just knew what was coming next…
Or so we thought.
As Benson and company finished “Give Me The Night” and left the stage, we were now hoping this was that annoying teaser that happens just before an encore.
Then the house lights came on and the crowd remained standing – with some chanting: “Broadway! Broadway! Broadway!”
Then, an usher standing near me announced those crushing words, “the show is over folks,” and just like that, we disbursed.
Those bright lights should have been the sign.
Today, June 3, “The Breezin’ & Breathless Tour” makes a stop in Niagara Falls, NY. It’s as close to NYC as this tour takes them.
Surely, Benson will do “On Broadway” there, right?
If not, this was still a good show…despite the empty feeling we had from that glaring omission and the encore that never happened.
If you get the chance, and you’re a fan, check out the “Breezin’ and Breathless Tour” in a city near you.