Saturday, August 22, 2009

August 22: Ray Charles, "The Genius Of Ray Charles"

Artist: Ray Charles
Album: The Genius Of Ray Charles
Year: 1959
Label: Atlantic

Jazz, soul, R&B, rock, blues, and country may all seem like genres onto themselves, but in the case of one Genius, they were all simultaneously fair game. THE Genius himself, Ray Charles served as proof that genres were only what you made of them, and with true musical talent, they could all be performed with equal success on the same album. Ray Charles was always an artist who enjoyed blending musical styles together, and the manner in which he did during the early phase of his career is truly stunning. This was in large part due to the fact that, in hindsight, the man simply had too much music inside of him that he needed to expel. Impacting the music world for more than five decades, much of Charles' catalog have become "classics" and his voice is truly unmistakable. Though the catalog of Ray Charles is, by far, one of the most imposing, both in terms of size and range, one would be truly hard pressed to find any record in it that is anything short of superb. However, during the early years of his career, Ray's voice was unparalleled, and it is in these early recordings where the true brilliance of his talents shines brightest. Bringing in a handful of top notch musicians from the bands of Duke Ellington and Count Basie among others, there are few albums that can even come close to the power and presence of Ray Charles' 1959 release, The Genius Of Ray Charles.

Though the name of Ray Charles is imposing in itself, if you read deeper into the liner notes on The Genius Of Ray Charles, it quickly becomes obvious that he found himself in quite good company for the recording. Produced by the tandem of Atlantic Records partners Nesuhi Ertegun and Jerry Wexler, it is little surprise that every musician on the planet wanted to get in on the sessions. The sound quality is absolutely perfect on every song, and Ertegun and Wexler masterfully bring out even the slightest nuances in both the band as well as Charles' singing. The album is split into two sides, the first side featuring a full band backing Charles; while the second side is just Charles with a simple, more jazz-based quintet and string section led by the great Ralph Burns. This split in sound truly makes the album perfect for every music lover, as the one constant is Charles' amazing voice and playing. The sound of the band on the first side of the album rivals any other in history, and this is in large part due to their conductor, and up and coming musician and arranger named Quincy Jones. Jones makes the slow songs swing, and the speedy songs rock, and one can clearly see that, even this early in his career, Jones was going to be an undeniable musical force. Aided by the flawless production of Ertegun and Wexler, along with the musical leadership of Jones and Ralph Burns, Ray Charles only needs to be concerned with his own performance, which allows him the space to be absolutely phenomenal on every song found on The Genius Of Ray Charles.

The sound of the side one band is absolutely sensational, with the horns blasting brightly, and the entire band moving as an unstoppable musical machine. Having played in the bands of Basie and Ellington, as well as playing alongside everyone from Thelonious Monk to Oscar Peterson, Clark Terry stands as one of the most influential and recorded trumpet players in music history. There are actually another four or five trumpet players along with Terry, which include among others, Snookie Young, and the sound that comes from the section is absolutely astounding. Also in this band is a quartet of trombone players, which include Melba Liston, who would become extremely well known for her collaborations with Randy Weston in the early 1960's. Zoot Sims and Paul Gonsalves bookend the four sax players, and the sound of their section never fails to fall short of stunning. With such a powerful, bright sound on side one, listeners almost "need" the more relaxed, slower second side to recover. On the second side of The Genius Of Ray Charles, the sound is led by the muted string section, which is under the supervision of the duo of Ralph Burns and Harry Lookofsky. The entire group understands that on these songs, the focus is truly Ray and his amazing voice and piano playing, though each musician, most notably bassist Wendel Marshall and an flute section take brilliant solos on various songs. As previously stated, the string section is simply sensational, and they provide a gorgeous backing texture for Charles on every song. Though the two backing bands are sharp contrasts in sound and style, the two sides are equally fantastic, and therein lies the genius of the album.

The sound of Ray Charles' voice is nothing short of a classic American sound. Easily one of the most rich and emotionally telling voices in history, there is never any mistaking the sound of Ray Charles. Whether he is exploding with joy on songs like "Let The Good Times Roll" or soulfully lamenting on the classic "Am I Blue?," Ray's singing is nothing short of magnificent. With his uncanny ability to find the true feelings and essence within each song, his take on every song is always unique and they remain unrivaled to this day. Regardless of where he is working on the musical scale, he nails every note, and his sometimes gritty, sometimes soft and soulful voice is a true treat to experience time and time again. On The Genius Of Ray Charles, Ray delivers a dozen original versions of some of the most classic songs in the history of music. His swinging, horn-laced take on "It Had To Be You" is by far one of the most enjoyable versions ever recorded, and his interpretation of Irving Berlin's "Alexander's Ragtime Band" is so phenomenal that it has rarely been covered since. On the flip side, Charles' recording of "Come Rain Or Come Shine" is easily the most raw and soulful since the versions by Sarah Vaughan and Billie Holiday. Truth be told, the versions recorded after this one (read as: Frank Sinatra and Barbara Streisand) seem almost cliché or childish in comparison. Try as they might, there has simply never been another singer who could match the honest, and phenomenal sound and playing of Ray Charles, and the true essence of his amazing ability can be found on The Genius Of Ray Charles.

Whether he was playing piano and singing in the extraordinary style that he made famous, or shooting guns at would-be shoplifters in The Blues Brothers, there has truly never been another artist that can be mentioned in the same breath as The Genius, Ray Charles. Having recorded with everyone from Willie Nelson to Leon Russell to James Taylor, the boundaries of musical genres never mattered to Charles, and this is a large part why his music is so unique and amazing. His slightly gruff, always perfect voice set him high atop the list of the greatest vocalists ever, and the emotion and soul that he puts behind his voice truly make him nothing short of an icon. For his fifth studio recording with Atlantic Records, Ray decided to spotlight both of his loves, separating the album into two, starkly contrasting sides. The big band sound of the first side enables Charles to swing and belt out some of his most joyous sounds, while the second side is far more restrained and mellow, yet it is absolutely equal in its unmatched musical impact. Having recorded countless songs over his career which spanned more than fifty years, his recorded catalog rivals any other in terms of size, yet stands alone in terms of diversity in sound, as well as collaborative partners. Standing high above the rest of his albums is his truly awe-inspiring, monumental and magnificent 1959 album, The Genius Of Ray Charles.

Standout tracks: "Let The Good Times Roll," "It Had To Be You," and "Deed I Do."

1 comment:

Dawood Mamedoff said...

Frank Sinatra called him "The only genius in our business" and that obviously wasn't a kind of exaggeration. Here I've tried to collect all notable tributes paid to Ray Charles by peers: