When Ray Charles passed away last June, his influence was so far reaching that there was little doubt all manner of tributes would soon follow. While there are bound to be attempts to capitalize on his death, nothing could be further from the truth in this case. Saxophonist David "Fathead" Newman got his first big break with Charles in the early '50s, playing in his band from '54 through '64 and making numerous guest appearances in the years to come. And so "Fathead"a nickname Charles never liked, preferring to call him "Brains"entered the studio of another legendengineer Rudy van Gelderjust two months after Charles' death to record I Remember Brother Ray, a tribute to the jazzier side of a man who always regarded himself as a jazz singer anyway.
Some music is meant to stretch boundaries, and some is meant purely as a salve for the soul. Newman has never been considered a particularly adventurous tenor player, yet his warm tone, occasionally terse phrasing, and always heartfelt delivery has placed him in high demand by artists as diverse as B.B. King, Herbie Mann, Jane Monheit, and Gregg Allman. In fact, one look at his discography and it becomes evident that his career has been marked more by appearances as a guest than as a leader. Still, with over twenty recordings to his name, I Remember Brother Ray stands as an understated highlight, a record that doesn't so much jump out at you as it does gently sidle up beside you and caress you with its warmth and affability.
Like saxophonist Houston Person, who coproduces the disc with Newman and delivered his own heartfelt tribute to longtime collaborator Etta Jones last year with To Etta With Love, I Remember Brother Ray evokes the ambience of a smoky bar in the early hours of the morning. Never getting much past a medium tempo"Hit the Road Jack" is about as lively as things get, and even then, it's more a finger-snapping number than a foot-moving oneNewman has assembled a quintet as comfortable with the tender balladry of "Georgia on My Mind" as it is the soul-drenched blues of "Drown in My Tears." Charles believed that the ability to play jazz permits the ability to cross over into other genres, and the playing on I Remember Brother Ray clearly supports his conviction. One sometimes forgets that vibraphonist Steve Nelson, heard most often these days in the more modernistic Dave Holland Quintet and Big Band, comes from a mainstream background, but his playing on the relaxed swing of "Ruby" and "It Had to Be You" proves that even the most forward-thinking of players have to have roots.
While there will undoubtedly be many tributes in the near future, few discs will equal I Remember Brother Ray for its grace, honesty, and pure connection to the true essence of Charles' legacy.
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