The music of Ray Charles brings out the soul in us, no matter whether we're listeners or musicians. That was his genius, if you will. And that ability is celebrated and put to the test on the two tribute recordings released around Charles' passing.
Both also remind us that his impact was also at work on songs he didn't write, but were either reinvented or re-energized by his touch. Between John Scofield's That's What I Say and "Fathead Newman's I Remember Brother Ray, only two tunes are common to both projects and out of the 20 songs, just four were written or co-written by Charles. Yet he made each his own in some fashion.
That's What I Say
Scofield's project is a special guest-laden extravaganza in which all feel soulfully right at home. None is more ambitious than the "What'd I Say - on which all five guest vocalists - Dr. John, Warren Haynes, John Mayer, Aaron Neville and Mavis Staples - alternate verses and ratchet up the energy as they do. One of the surprises is the gritty, soulful performance that Mayer turns in on "I Don't Need No Doctor . Until timbre gives us a hint, it is not even clear who the singer might be. Clearly, it is a different side of Mayer than many listeners are used to. Scofield's distinctive angular guitar work is on target - and gets quite inspired when he's mixing it up with Mayer's own fretwork and the bottleneck guitar of Gov't Mule's Haynes on their respective guest tracks. Staples turns in perhaps the most stunning of all the fine vocal performances with her take on "I Can't Stop Loving You and Newman adds his tenor magic to three tunes.
The CD includes many musical combinations, from 18 singers and instrumentalists down to quartet, trio, duo (Sco' and Larry Goldings on B3) and a solo acoustic guitar rendition of "Georgia On My Mind - which closes out the project, almost. 20 seconds after that track seems to end, it picks up again with a five-minute organ-guitar-bass-drums jam band excursion for which Scofield's recent projects are better known . The talent aboard here makes it a pleasant encore, despite its lack of Charles pedigree.
David "Fathead" Newman
I Remember Brother Ray
Newman's own HighNote project is a straight instrumental jazz celebration of Charles, in whose band he held the tenor chair from 1954-1964. Each tune on his project is one that he played and recorded with Charles during that tenure. Steve Nelson's bright vibes provide a nice complement to Fathead's tenor. Together, they add a rather vocal feel to the stripped-down instrumental setting throughout.
Much like Scofield, Newman included some favorites from the Charles "songbook that weren't mega-hits, but deserved revisiting. "When Your Lover Has Gone and "Drown In My Tears are particularly well done. For overall soulfulness and a chance to explore the ballad side of Ray Charles, the quartet's take on "Ruby is tops to these ears. "Them That Got is another talking blues up-tempo gem.
If he's been listening, Brother Ray no doubt is smiling.
That's What I Say
Tracks: 1 Busted Howard 6:31; 2 What'd I Say Charles 6:18; 3 Sticks and Stones Glover, Turner 3:44; 4 I Don't Need No Doctor Ashford, Simpson 4:30; 5 Cryin' Time Owens 1:33; 6 I Can't Stop Loving You Gibson 4:48; 7 Hit the Road Jack Mayfield 5:29; 8 Talkin' Bout You/I Got a Woman Charles, Richard 5:50; 9 Unchain My Heart, Pt. 1 Powell, Sharp 5:05; 10 Let's Go Get Stoned Armstead, Ashford, Simpson 3:29; 11 Night Time Is the Right Time Herman 4:57; 12 You Don't Know Me Arnold, Walker 4:57; 13 Georgia on My Mind Carmichael, Gorrell 8:10
Personnel: Manolo Badrena: Percussion, Tambourine, Timbales, Spanish Vocals; Dr. John: Piano, Vocals; Lisa Fischer: Vocals (bckgr), Handclapping; Alex Foster: Sax (Tenor); Earl Gardner: Trumpet; Larry Goldings: Organ, Vibraphone, Wurlitzer; Warren Haynes: Vocals, Slide Guitar; Howard Johnson: Sax (Baritone); Steven "Steven J." Jordan: Drums, Tambourine, Vocals (bckgr), Handclapping; John Mayer: Guitar (Acoustic), Guitar (Electric), Vocals; Aaron Neville: Vocals; David "Fathead" Newman: Sax (Tenor); Keith O'Quinn: Trombone; John Scofield: Guitar; Mavis Staples: Vocals; Vaneese Thomas: Vocals (bckgr), Handclapping; Meegan Voss: Vocals (bckgr); Willie Weeks: Bass, Ampeg Baby Bass
I Remember Brother Ray
Tracks: 1 Hit the Road Jack Mayfield 5:44; 2 Georgia On My Mind Carmichael, Gorrell 7:20; 3 When Your Lover Has Gone Swan 5:05; 4 Drown in My Tears Glover 6:15; 5 Deed I Do Hirsch, Rose 5:27; 6 It Had to Be You Jones, Kahn 5:32; 7 Ruby Parish, Roemheld 9:44; 8 Them That Got (I Ain't Got Nothing Yet) Charles, Harper 5:32
Personnel: Winard Harper: Drums; John Hicks: Piano; John Menegon: Bass; Steve Nelson: Vibraphone; David "Fathead" Newman: Tenor Sax