We generally take it for granted now, but Ray Charles' trademark blend of jazz, gospel, R&B and soul in a large ensemble or orchestral setting was a unique sound mastered by few artists when this 1961 set was recorded. Number 41 in the Montreux Jazz Label's Swiss Radio Days Jazz Series, Zurich 1961 is a historical and musical treasure which might have been better recorded but could not have been better performed.
Zurich 1961 reaches crackling, up-tempo jazz heights and the depths of the lowdownest and dirtiest blues, thanks to the collective talent in one of Charles' most star-studded orchestras, here featuring trumpeter Marcus Belgrave, saxophonists Hank Crawford (alto and bandleader) and David "Fathead" Newman (tenor sax and flute), and Elbert "Sonny" Forriest, guitarist for such R&B kingpins as The No Coasters and Percy Mayfield (who penned Charles' hit "Hit the Road, Jack"), plus soulful vocal backing from the always sensuous Raeletts.
Quincy Jones' arrangements of great jazz tunes keep this set popping. The first two tunes, "Happy Faces" (Sonny Stitt) and "Along Came Betty" (Benny Golson), sound like the Count Basie Band (for whom Jones also arranged), with the rhythm section blowing up its bottom and ensemble horns blasting off its top. Crawford's truly sings through a surprisingly soft and sweet "Misty" while Jones chips in his own "The Birth of a Band," which jumps out of the gate at a jackrabbit's pace and grows even more powerful when the saxophones and trumpets trade blistering fours. It's hard to imagine the Basie band or any one of its contemporaries playing this instrumental tour-de-force, which the crowd acknowledges by interrupting with mid-song applause, any better. "We were the last of the big bands, you know," arranger Quincy Jones recalls in this set's liner notes. "We were number three after Duke Ellington and Basie."
But even better, Brother Ray and company slowly unroll several mournful blues heavy enough to flatten you. From the leader's stark and lonely self-accompanied first verse through the band's closing eruption of sound and emotion, "Come Rain or Come Shine" stretches into eight minutes of agonized yet joyful blues. The bare hurt in Charles' original "I Believe to My Soul" (famously covered by Van Morrison) aches even more deeply, raw pain salved by the Raelettes' soothing voices.
Zurich 1961 also represents a tipping point in Charles' career: The previous November (1960), "Georgia on My Mind" became the #1 pop single; six months after this October 1961 performance, Charles would unleash (in April '62) the #1 pop single "I Can't Stop Loving You" and groundbreaking Modern Sounds in Country & Western Music.
Happy Faces; Along Came Betty; My Baby; Sticks And Stones; Georgia On My Mind; Blue Stone; Margie; Hit The Road, Jack; The Birth Of A Band; I Remember Clifford; Come Rain Or Come Shine; Ghana; I Believe To My Soul; I've Got News For You; Misty; I Wonder; Ray Minor Ray.
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