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Ray Charles & The Count Basie Orchestra - Ray Sings, Basie Swings Print E-mail
Thursday, 01 March 2007
format:    16-bit CD
performance:    7
sound:    6
release year:    2006
label:    Concord
reviewed by:    Matt Fink

ImageThough the practice of reanimating old recordings for the purposes of tying up loose ends left by a deceased artist once seemed a reasonable excuse for messing with underdeveloped texts, the unfortunate examples of the Beatles dumping sonic goop over a creaky 15-year-old John Lennon demo suggests that even the greatest artists shouldn’t be trying to raise ghosts. Obviously, it was an admirable attempt by the world’s most famous rock band to offer their legion of fans something new, but “Free as a Bird” never transcended its context. No matter what, it sounded like what it was, three musicians trying to recapture the feeling encoded on a sketchy piece of tape, and, finding they couldn’t, simply filling in the empty spaces with Beatles clichés. Turns out recorded ghosts don’t like to be disturbed, either.

That said, I cringed when I read that Ray Sings, Basie Swings is not, in fact, a pairing of the legendary Ray Charles with big band jazz icon Count Basie. Instead, due to a labeling error on a 1973 Concord Records tape reel that held only separate Charles and Basie sessions – not collaborations – it wasn’t until three decades later that the actual Count Basie Orchestra would be brought in to finish the work that Ray started all those years ago. And given that Basie passed away in 1984 (though his CBO has soldiered on without him), it’s not nearly the meeting of the minds that it would appear to be from the title. But it’s against these long odds that this album actually succeeds, as even the most dubious ideas can’t ruin a recording of Ray Charles at the top of his game. Running through a series of his early ‘60s hits, Charles was in fine voice and spirit, and the Count Basie Orchestra swings with the delicacy and deftness that made them standard-bearers for their form. Having gained accolades for remaking classic country songs on his landmark Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music, Charles proved such material could be even further translated into swaggering and swinging big band renditions, turning the hangdog “Busted” into a defiantly lurching boast and making “Cryin’ Time” sound even more dejected by the somberly buzzing trumpets and understated piano fills. As a master of tempo and pacing, Charles pumped life into the austere “I Can’t Stop Loving You” with brassy, wailing horns adding an exclamation to his exasperated vocals.

Just as interesting are Charles’ turns toward non-hit material. From the muscular, pumping horns and deeply soulful take on “Let the Good Times Roll” to a barn-burning rendition of Melanie’s “Look What They’ve Done to My Song, Ma” (!), Charles is in top form, and the Count Basie Orchestra does well not to overpower his performances with their orchestral bluster. Charles even takes a stab at the Beatles’ “The Long and Winding Road,” giving the song an understated and heartbroken grace that the original lacked because of Phil Spector’s exorbitant strings. A typically plaintive rendition of his standard “Georgia on My Mind” adds little to the already-known renditions of the track, as the CBO wisely stands back and adds only subtle flourishes to fill out the dignified and graceful atmosphere Charles creates.

Taken as a whole, Ray Sings, Basie Swings succeeds because of, and not just in spite of, the liberties taken by the producers. Without the spot-on performances by the Count Basie Orchestra the tracks would sound underdeveloped and naked, with Charles’ impassioned performances lacking the instrumental answer in his powerful call-and-response. The producers have done the unthinkable, creating a set of songs that would sound incomplete without their tampering. This is hardly an endorsement of the approach, of course, and I’m still dreading the inevitable post-mortem duet between Ray Charles and Kid Rock, but it’s nice to know that there was at least one occasion when such unholy recording techniques were successful. He might be gone, but even in death, the vision of Ray Charles remains remarkably clear.

Despite the years of improvements in production and recording techniques, there is no perceptible difference between the Charles source recordings and the Count Basie Orchestra overdubs. The album has a consistently rich and warm tone, with the horn section and Charles’ vocals mixed equally high in the arrangements, leaving his piano playing and female backing vocalists to assume appropriately understated roles. In fact, the renditions of Charles’ 1960s hits are arguably more vivid and soulful than the originals, as the mixes of those original tracks could be a bit cold and brittle by comparison. Those looking for a high fidelity recording of Charles at his peak could do far worse.

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