George Benson's new album channels the spirit of Nat King Cole, the evergreen jazz great. We speak to him at Morocco's Mawazine festival about crowd-sourcing and his love for the UAE.
You have had such a legendary career that many people covered your works. What made you tip your hat to a fellow jazz legend?
Nat Cole is too important an artist to let slip by into history. Not only was he important to the black community in the US, he crossed over in such a big way that he competed with Frank Sinatra.
That was an impossible feat, no one could do that except Cole. He had hit after hit; everything that he recorded became an important work of art. He would take a jazz tune and make a pop tune out of it simply because it was him doing it with all his artistic value.
The album title mentions it is a tribute to Nat King Cole. Does that mean you didn't interpret any of his classics your way?
It is a tribute - no one can compete with Nat King Cole. You just don't to do that. To reinterpret his work is what lots of people tried to do and that would just fade into history. To get as close as I could get to him was important. To be honest, I wish I could have done this 20 years ago. I was more on top of who he was then. That said, it was a joy.
You are among many artists using crowd-funding to finance their works. Your Pledge Music campaign raised the cash in three months to produce the album. What made you take that route?
It is expensive, hiring orchestras and great producers. The record company was not ready to stretch out very far when it came to the finances and I was ready to fund it myself. I could have done it easily.
Then someone from my team mentioned Pledge Music and I initially thought: 'Why should I do that?' He said the public likes it because they feel part of it. And the response was absolutely incredible.
You've played with different global sounds. What is your take on music from the Arab world?
We learn from experience. John Coltrane went to this part of the world and returned with a wealth of knowledge. Western music goes up in steps to 12 tones while Arab music just slides within that and gives the music more emotion.
I see the influences creeping into American pop music in the past 10 years, especially in the phrasing of singers. I think the Arab music style is going to be big in the near future.
Natalie Cole is also working on her own tribute album to her father. Would you consider working with her on a future project?
I can foresee something like that. We are friends and I know many members of the Cole family. Natalie and I have done a lot of shows together.
She actually inspired my R&B version of [the jazz standard] Nature Boy. We were supposed to sing it together as a duet and she didn't show up. I devised my own version of it and I realised it had a really nice beat. I ran straight to the studio and recorded it in one take. That song became a hit.
Have you ever been asked to judge a talent show?
Yes, a few times, actually, but I keep turning them down. People think I know things that no one else does but that is not the case. And I don't worry about the winner, I care about the loser. Because I have been in their shoes at some stage of my life.
Do you have any plan to tour this album in the UAE?
I would love to. I have a lot of friends there and I met some members of the royal family in the UAE when I was very young. So I actually saw the country literally grow of out of the desert to become this paradise. It is an incredible place and I always feel welcome when I am there and playing on stage.
Inspiration: A Tribute to Nat King Cole by George Benson (Universal) is out on Tuesday