The emotional touchstone and title explanation for Inspiration arrives on the very first track, which is a 57-second rendition of “Mona Lisa” by “L’il Georgie Benson.” Benson, heard here, is eight years old and deadly earnest about working his pre-pubescent croon in homage to his idol Cole. Sixty-two years later, Benson is no less in thrall to Cole’s signature baritone and the way it surfed the swing of the music with preternatural aplomb. His career has been remarkably similar to Cole’s in that jazz hounds yearn for him to play his instrument (guitar for Benson, piano for Cole) but the greater record-buying public prefers the emphasis on that honeyed voice, and the way its gentle phrasing and firm enunciation remain loyal to the narrative of the songwriter. Inspiration will please those masses of Benson and Cole fans with its revelry in songcraft and suave elegance.
Most of the classic Cole hits are here, backed by The Henry Mancini Institute Orchestra, the horns punchy on the songs arranged for Cole by Billy May, “Just One of Those Things” and “I’m Gonna Sit Right Down and Write Myself A Letter,” and the strings ascendant on the arrangements associated with Nelson Riddle, such as “Unforgettable” (abetted by Latin-tinged acoustic guitar from Benson and tender trumpet from Wynton Marsalis) and a second, much more polished Benson cover of “Mona Lisa” to close the disc.
The fact that Inspiration takes few chances is itself something of a tribute to Cole, who exuded emotional serenity and security without lapsing into indolence or maudlin sentimentality. Only one track, a duet with Idina Menzel on “When I Fall In Love” that belongs on a Disney soundtrack, verges on the trite and sappy, a misstep easily compensated by Benson’s gorgeous duet with The Voice contestant Judith Hill on “Too Young.” Throw in some agile swing on “Walkin’ My Baby Back Home” and “Ballerina,” and some funky lines for the jazz folk on “Route 66,” and Inspiration becomes, if not unforgettable, plenty durable.