When one goes to see a musician as famous as Ray Charles, a whole different level of excitement comes into play. Dave Douglas, the last act before Charles at this year’s Litchfield Jazz Festival, may be gaining great fame in the jazz world. But it’s not Ray Charles-level fame, nor will it ever be. That fact couldn’t have been clearer as the festival wound to its climactic close on a cold, rainy Sunday night in August.
First the Ray Charles big band took the stage, all clad in black ties and tuxes. They played three songs before their boss was even introduced. And when he finally was introduced, it was in true Johnny Carson style. Charles was led onto the stage and the crowd rose to its feet like one big creature following a powerful instinct. As he began flailing his arms in excitement and acknowledgement, all were seized with the feeling that a great man, a legend, had entered the space. The MC reinforced the feeling by making the Johnny Carson-style announcement again. Ray Charles is so huge that one introduction just won’t do.
He was in top form. His voice was improvisational, impassioned, individual, the voice of greatness. His keyboard work was just as solid; Mike Karn has compared his style to that of Hank Jones and even Milt Jackson. Playing lesser-known gems as well as classics like "Busted," "The Good Life," "Georgia On My Mind," "Almost Like Being In Love," "Just for a Thrill," "Till There Was You," "I Can’t Stop Loving You," "You Are My Sunshine," and "What’d I Say," Charles brought down the house.
Hearing such a collection of songs and styles is not only entertainment, it is history come to life. Charles’s importance as a soul singer, a gospel singer, a jazz singer, a rock singer, and even a country singer is undeniable. His genius lies in weaving all these influences into his own unmistakable sound. Even to call some of these "influences" somehow falls short — the man practically invented soul music.
Straight-ahead jazz musicians are borrowing from popular music genres a lot these days. In a sense, it was Ray Charles who made this conceivable. While they may not be conscious of it on a daily basis, many owe their musical identities in part to Ray Charles. This is a prophet of modern music, and to see him in those dark glasses, sitting on that piano bench, still sounding so good, is a thrill quite unlike anything else in this world.
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