Live in Concert
Willie Nelson, Wynton Marsalis, and Norah Jones
Here We Go Again: Celebrating the Genius of Ray Charles
[Blue Note (2011)]
There was only one Ray Charles (1930-2004). That is made clear by this pair of recently released CDs. Though a wonderful idea, the uniting of vocalists Willie Nelson and Norah Jones and trumpeter Wynton Marsalis for a tribute to Charles’s music pales in contrast to Charles’s own performance on Live In Concert. Don’t get me wrong. There are plenty of moments of brilliance on Here We Go Again: Celebrating The Genius Of Ray Charles, recorded during a February 2009 concert at New York’s Rose Theater. Marsalis’ touring band—Walter Blanding (saxophone), Dan Nimmer (piano), Carlos Henriquez (bass), and Ali Jackson (drums)—remain smooth and steady, while Nelson’s harmonica player, Mickey Raphael, brings several tunes to life with his melodic playing, and Marsalis accents each song with the clear, concise tone of his trumpet.
The album’s biggest problems come with the vocals. No stranger to applying his nasal twang to an eclectic range of material, including blues and jazz, Nelson, 77 years old at the time of the recording, lacks the power for Charles’ songs. Though they work well together, when egging each other on (“Hit The Road Jack” and “Makin’ Whoopie”), Nelson and Jones’ differences in phrasing make it difficult to listen to their singing in unison (“Cryin’ Time”).
With seven additional tunes completing the full show, Live In Concert, recorded during a September 1964 show at the Shrine Auditorium in Los Angeles, and originally released in 1965, is a cause for celebration. If you’ve got no other Ray Charles album in your collection, this is the one to get. Soul drips from every pore as Charles leads a 16-piece orchestra, including a 12-piece horn section, led by tenor saxophonist/music director David “Fathead” Newman, and female vocal quartet, The Raelettes, through some of his most memorable music. Opening with a pair of instrumentals (“Swing A Little Taste” and “One Mint Julep”), Charles shows off his keyboard wizardry. But, it’s when he starts to sing, that you start to melt. From the opening strains of his 1954 hit, “I Got A Woman,” to a hard-swinging version of “What’d I Say” that concludes the regular set, this is Charles at his peak.
Charles was at a career turning point at the time. Though he had built his early career on gospel-tinged R&B, he had begun branching out to a diverse range of material. While his early hits—“I Got A Woman,” “Georgia On My Mind,” and “Hallelujah, I Love Her So”—are reprised in versions that sound as good as the original recordings, he extends his reach to country music (Buck Owens’ “Busted”), the blues (Ledbelly and Leroy Carr’s “In The Evening [When The Sun Goes Down]”), and the Great American Songbook (“Makin’ Whoopie,” “One Mint Julep,” and “That Lucky Old Sun”). Joining the festivities about three-quarters into the show, the Raelettes—Gwen Barry, Pat Lyle, Darlene MacRae and Lillian Forte—lift things even further with their sultry harmonies.
—Craig Harris (Chicopee, MA)