Ray Charles: Exciting, stirring, and, indeed, soulful dialogues between The Genius and his big band
More Than Meets The Ear
A reissue of four Ray Charles jazz instrumental albums offers a wealth of underrated artistry in one package
By David McGee
GENIUS + SOUL=JAZZ
1960. The ABC-Paramount label, heretofore known for its success in pushing the pop fluff—albeit major hit pop fluff—of Paul Anka, made a bold move to develop itself into an R&B powerhouse by whisking Ray Charles away from Atlantic with promises that he could control his master recordings and exert more control over his recording sessions, which he eventually began directing with his studio alter-ego, Sid Feller. A restless visionary who had already fused gospel to R&B in the ‘50s, Charles had ideas about finding new ways into jazz. As the late music historian/radio personality Charlie Gillett observed in his essential The Sound of The City: The Rise of Rock ‘n’ Roll: “Working with jazz musicians (including Milt Jackson of the Modern Jazz Quartet), [Charles] helped to bring jazz out of the abstract improvisations and random rhythms of bop, back toward what Charles Mingus, Horace Silver and Bobby Timmons talked of as ‘the roots,’ ‘funky music,’ ‘soul.’” In Gillett’s view, Charles’s early ABC recordings were the best evidence of the powerful personal style he intended to exert on his music at that time.
Gillett’s assessment is right on the money, as is borne out by anyone diving into the exciting, stirring, and, indeed, soulful dialogues between Charles and his big band on the expanded reissue of his 1961 album, Genius + Soul=Jazz (a double-disc set featuring three other largely instrumental jazz albums from the ‘70s: My Kind of Jazz, Jazz Number II, and My Kind of Jazz Part 3). Backed by some stalwarts from the Count Basie Orchestra (but not the Count himself), who are supplemented by former Basie-ites such as trumpeter Clark Terry, in addition to redoubtable freelancers such as legendary tenor saxophonist Budd Johnson, who had earlier starred with Earl Hines, helped pioneer bebop in working with Coleman Hawkins and had done some session work for Atlantic during Charles’s tenure at the label; Urbie Green, who had come up through the big bands of Gene Krupa and Woody Herman before becoming the first-call session trombonist of choice in the ‘50s (he also led the Tommy Dorsey band following Dorsey’s death in 1956); the acclaimed bebop saxophonist Charlie Mariano; and drummer Roy Haynes, whose credits spanned the length and breadth of traditional and experimental jazz in working with the likes of Charlie Parker, Stan Getz, Bud Powell, Lester Young, Miles Davis, and Sarah Vaughan (with whom he toured from 1953 to 1958), among many other giants of the genre. As arrangers he enlisted the heavy-duty artistry of Ralph Burns (who had come to acclaim during his years arranging for Woody Herman) and Quincy Jones, and enlisted Creed Taylor as his producer. And maybe it should be pointed out that when Charles recorded Genius + Soul=Jazz, he was all of 30 years old. What he wrought might have been scary, had he not already had the better part of a decade of groundbreaking work behind him when he joined ABC-Paramount.
In Seattle, WA, 1983, Ray Charles joins Quincy Jones on ‘One Mint Julep,’ the #1 R&B single from Brother Ray’s Jones-arranged 1960 album, Genius + Soul=Jazz
If you can rather predict the high caliber of musicianship and imagination the abovementioned musicians bring to these projects, the big surprise might then be Brother Ray’s presence less at the piano and more, quite a bit more, at the Hammond organ. A devoted fan of Jimmy Smith, Ray used this occasion to take off on some Smith-style right-hand romps across the keys, as he does with feisty good humor on his own roiling “Mister C,” and on the bright, hard charging “Let’s Go,” a blast of horn-rich energy composed by Charles seemingly in homage to the great ‘30s dance bands (with a funny chiming sign off some will recall as the NBC tone). At other times he’s simply Brother Ray, getting down and bluesy on Roy Alfred’s “I’ve Got News For You,” a Top 10 R&B single (#66 pop) featuring Ray’s own “gotcha!” vocal directed at a philandering mate with bemused sarcasm and underscored by an astringent, anxious organ solo to boot. Blues and swing styles meshed most seamlessly on the most famous song from this long player, “One Mint Julep,” a#1 R&B single notable for Ray’s rhythmically infectious happy organ formulations and the lone appearance of his voice on the track, when he steps into a stop-time break to moan a low “Just a little pinch of soda,” which, as Will Friedwald notes in his excellent liner notes, most listeners heard as “Just a little bit of soul now,” likely to the song’s benefit. From the Jimmy Rushing era of the Basie band Charles does a fine, nuanced job resurrecting the stealthy blues of “I’m Gonna Move to the Outskirts of Town,” playing off Phillip Guilbeau’s aggrieved trumpet obbligato with a measured, probing vocal, all soft textures punctuated by the occasional growl, the arrangement concluding with a series of rousing horn crescendos near the song’s end. At other times, simple good feelings abound in the performances, notably on Howard Marks’s “Stompin’ Room Only,” a buoyant, swing-era-flavored ditty marked by Guilbeau’s soaring trumpet solo, and Charles’s bouncy, lighthearted theme-and-development organ signatures between verses.
Ray Charles on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson in 1990, performs Roy Alfred’s ‘I’ve Got News For You,’ a top 10 R&B single in 1960 off his Genius + Soul=Jazz album. Check it out—Brother Ray brings it.
My Kind of Jazz, recorded in 1970, practically picks up where the 1960 album left off, as if Ray wanted to add a postscript ten years later. If anything, the mood here is more introspective, thanks to Benny Golson’s wonderful, warm tributes to a fallen comrade, “I Remember Clifford,” with its soulful, keening trumpet solo leading the way into a thoughtful, low-key salute to the late, gone-too-soon Clifford Brown. “This Here,” from the great Bobby Timmons’s pen, brings Ray back to the piano midway through for an oddly miked but rambunctious solo setting up a rowdy, honking sax retort. Again on piano in an electrifying treatment of Horace Silver’s “Senor Blues,” Charles leads a dramatic, horn-driven dialogue of ever shifting textures, ranging from blaring blasts and retreats by the full section interspersed among solo spots of varying intensity and angularity. All of this action precedes Ray’s entrance almost four minutes into the piece, with a rollicking piano solo, but, recognizing his moment as being but a cameo appearance, the star settles quickly back into the ensemble, leaving the field wide open again for dueling horn sections.
The second disc, containing Jazz Number II (from 1972) and My Kind of Jazz Part 3 (from 1975), may seem of less import certainly than 1960’s Genius + Soul=Jazz, and in comparison to that album’s continuing dialogue on My Kind of Jazz in 1970. Charles-ologists have largely dismissed these later instrumental albums as sounding mostly like the warmup numbers preceding Ray’s arrival onstage, and there is a certain “overture”-like quality to the setting and arrangements. This will not be the occasion for a revisionist view of these efforts, but at the same time, friends, there is a lot of good music in these 16 tracks (17 counting the inclusion of a bonus track, a dreamy, woozy “Misty” performed by Charles on Steve Turre’s 2000 album, In the Spur of the Moment, with Ray’s saloon-style piano and Turre’s evocative, muted trumpet conjuring closing time and a lonely 3 a.m. soul like nobody’s business—truly a beautiful rendition of this enduring chestnut.). For one, these albums capture Ray’s increasing fascination with Latinalia, and he gets it going with a sumptuous “Morning of Carnival” (by Luiz Bonfá and equally well known as “Theme from ‘Black Orpheus’”); the swinging, percussive groove of Teddy Edwards’s “Brazilian Skies” (both from Jazz Number II); and the cool, swaying rhythms and silky horn parts animating Alf Clausen’s (perhaps better know to the hoi polloi as the composer of The Simpsons’ music) “Samba De Elencia.” Yet another Charles fixation surfaces here in his exploration of the jazz waltz. Where My Kind of Jazz included Ray’s take on Toots Thielemans’s famous “Bluesette,” My Kind of Jazz 3 leads off with a robust interpretation of “I’m Gonna Go Fishin’,” by Duke Ellington (who was helped considerably in shaping it into a waltz by Peggy Lee, who wrote lyrics for the vocal version of Duke’s instrumental composition), and also features a soothing lope through Roger Neumann’s infectious “3/4 Of the Time,” with the horns as smooth and creamy as horns can be behind rich, textured sax and trumpet solos, the latter taking particular delight in exploring the length and breadth (and outer regions) of the scales before the band returns in full.
So maybe there’s more than meets the ear when it comes to the expanded edition of Genius + Soul=Jazz. On the other hand, would anyone really be surprised? We are talking, after all, about Brother Ray. Okay? Okay.
The painting of Ray Charles shown above is by Ahmad Austin and is available for sale at the A. Austin Collection, online at http://ahmadaustin.com/index.htm. The expanded edition of Ray Charles’s Genius + Soul=Jazz is available at www.amazon.com