1961 was a classic jazz vintage for Ray Charles. That was the year he delivered unto us Genius + Soul = Jazz (Impulse!, 1961), and the year he took Europe by storm with a big band in tow. He was in good voice and spirits, he had top quality charts in his booka good number from the pen of Quincy Jonesand he had a talent-filled band that included trumpeter Marcus Belgrave, trombonist Dicky Wells, alto saxophonist Hank Crawford, and tenor saxophonists David "Fathead" Newman and Don Wilkerson. What's not to like?
The music that's surfaced from the aforementioned time period is predictably pleasing. This particular release brings to light a complete concert that took place in Zurich on October 18, 1961. There's energy in the air in this music from the first notes of Sonny Stitt's "Happy Faces" to the end of concert-closer "Ray Minor Ray." Fifteen other tracks sit between them, delivering everything we're accustomed to hearing from Charles. We hear him playing off of The Raelettes on "My Baby," "I Believe To My Soul," and "I Wonder"; we observe him vocally extemporizing over a vamp on the outro of the excitable "Sticks And Stones"; we encounter his piano soloing working against the brassy hits of the band on "I've Got News For You"; and we hear his inimitable vocals fill the spaces in stop-time passages and rise up over energy-building triplets when the band is in full bloom. Brother Ray came to testify, and he came to win. He does both during this show.
Charles was always the main attraction when he took to the stage, but that's not to say he wasn't generous with space for his musicians. There are numerous opportunities here to delight in the deeds of his stellar band mates. Crawford is featured on "Misty," the two tenors dazzle and duke it out during "The Birth Of A Band," baritone saxophonist Leroy Cooper steps up to the plate on "Ghana," Newman's flute provides obbligato on a mostly intimate "Georgia On My Mind," Belgrave shines on "I Remember Clifford," and one or two others have the opportunity to shine on one or more occasion.
There's heart, soul, and heat in these performances, making this an enjoyable listen from top to bottom. If there's one caveat to offer up, it would be concerning the sound. Charles' piano (and vocals) seems to be off mic or under-amplified at times, the crisp punch of the band isn't always in focus or balance, and horn soloists are occasionally too hot in the mix. All of those things are minor gripes when you consider the bigger picture, but all deserve to be mentioned. In the end, they do little-to-nothing to diminish the enjoyment of hearing this 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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