"The way these days just rip along, too fast to last, too vast, too strong..." Jackson Browne
The final recording of Ray Charles, Genius Loves Company
, enjoys its tenth anniversary. It is striking to consider that it has been over ten years since the death of Ray Charles, one of the most imposing figures in American music. The music made in the second half of the twentieth century has had a remarkable staying power owing partially to its revolutionary quality and the near frantic dedication of the Post-World War II Baby Boom generation. Charles' contributions to this music are without measure.
It is useful to consider the role, or roles, played by Charles in American music. He deftly fused the blues with gospel music forming that offshoot of rhythm and blues: soul music. He then took this new eutectoid and mashed it up with jazz, creating an earthy humus. Once he had done this, he took on country and western music, infusing that mostly-white genre with the same soul music he previously created, resulting in the groundbreaking Modern Sounds in Country & Western Music
(ABC, 1962). Charles' reach was long and deep. Genius Loves Company
is Charles' valedictory. It was recorded between June 2003 and March 2004, with Charles passing away from liver disease on June 10, 2004. While Charles' health was certainly questionable during recording, there is no indication of diminished capacity. His singing is robust and vibrant, overt and assertive. Charles had to have his eye on the end but he was never going to let on. If anything can be said of Charles' singing voice, it is that he "became more himself" as he aged. If Johnny Cash's late voice and appearance were those of an Old Testament prophet, then Ray Charles in autumn was a dying Mozart composing his sunny Clarinet Concerto less in defiance than acceptance.
Duet recordings, pitting old masters with contemporary musicians, are nothing new. Tony Bennett has made a cottage industry of them (and not to any bad effect at that). Time was of the essence for Charles and what better a love letter to his mastery than for him to share the stage with so many like-minded musicians who admired him so. It was because of this programming, the chosen artists and some shrewd marketing that Genius Loves Company
was Charles' first top ten recording in 40 years. One of the biggest criticisms of the Charles biopic Ray
was that the story ended 40 years early. My argument would be, "what was there left for Ray Charles to do?" This is an album of artists' collaborative praise for a fellow artist.
Programming for the original recording was superb as was duet partner and song choice. Norah Jones, a closet country queen masquerading as a jazz artist, is a perfect foil to Charles on "Here We Go Again." Broad country block chords and Jones' creamy voice properly accent Charles' sacred sandpaper tone. Charles is most simpatico with his near contemporaries. "Fever" with Natalie Cole
and "Heaven Help Us All" with Gladys Knight are love fests. Charles digs deep with BB King (and Lucille) on "Sinner's Prayer" and Bonnie Raitt
on "Do I Ever Cross Your Mind." Raitt's signature slide guitar, ever influenced by Lowell George, is captured beautifully sonically.
Ray Charles possessed a stylistic depth and breadth with few peers. When considering who could step in and accept the mantle from Charles after his death, I posited two names, both gratefully represented here. Willie Nelson
has had as varied a career as Charles, sampling and then mastering every genre attempted. The two duet on a song closely associated with another such kindred spirit, Frank Sinatra
. "It was a Very Good Year" is an unexpected luxury of artistic irony and grace). Van Morrison
shares and ultimately offers his "Crazy Love" as a gift to Charles, the two crossing traditions with all we have in common.
The present Deluxe Edition sports a piquant "Mary Ann" with percussionist Poncho Sanchez
and an awesome "Unchain My Heart" with Take 6. An hour-long DVD detailing the making of Genius Loves Company
is a bit of gravy for this Fall class. Happy Birthday, Genius Loves Company
... it has been a very good year.
Here We Go Again; Sweet Potato Pie; You Don't Know Me; Sorry Seems to be the Hardest Word; Fever; Do I Ever Cross Your Mind?; It Was a Very Good Year; Hey Girl; Sinner's Prayer; Heaven Help Us All; Somewhere Over the Rainbow; Crazy Love. Bonus Tracks: Mary Ann; Unchain My Heart. Bonus DVD: The Making of Genius Loves Company.
Ray Charles: vocals, keyboards; Ray Charles-vocals, piano; Norah Jones, James Taylor, Diana Krall, Elton John, Natalie Cole, Bonnie Raitt, Willie Nelson, Michael McDonald, Gladys Knight, Johnny Mathis, Van Morrison-vocal; B.B. King, guitar, vocal; Billy Preston-organ; Poncho Sanchez: percussion; Take 6; 63-piece orchestra; others.