September 16, 2004

Losing The Genius

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In a musical career that spanned nearly six decades, Ray Charles has undoubtedly collaborated with numerous greats. Yet never before has he released an album featuring classics from albums like 1962’s Modern Sounds in Country and Western sung with current stars like Norah Jones, Diana Krall, and some surprises like Van Morrison and Elton John. Before this latest Charles release, Genius Loves Company, one could hardly anticipate what Charles and the likes of Willie Nelson would sound like.

Happily, the first track, “Here We Go Again” with Norah Jones lives up to every expectation. Jones has that genuine, clean aura about her, and she’s not a bad pianist either. She and Charles split brief riffs on keyboards and sing some pretty fantastic harmonies as the song progresses. Jones praised Charles, commenting, “He was as big an influence on me as you can get.” And she means it — these two musicians are perfect for each other. With some fantastic Hammond B3 work from Beatles keyboardist Billy Preston, I was hoping that the rest of the album would follow suit with cooperative ventures into the best harmony and musicianship the current industry offers.

Unfortunately, the first track is as good as it gets. In some instances, Charles’s scratchy, slightly atonal voice simply doesn’t work well with the sweet articulation of James Taylor on “Sweet Potato Pie” or “You Don’t Know Me” with Diana Krall. Indeed, I am reluctant to be critical of such a legendary musician, but I think Charles waited a few years too many to retire. He simply doesn’t have the vocal prowess we loved so much on classics like The Genius Hits The Road. Additionally, I think Charles picked the wrong core band for the recording. Guitarist Irv Kramer plays an electric guitar that’s too overbearing for love songs like “Sorry Seems To Be The Hardest Word” with Elton John.

To add to this dismay, much of the album uses inappropriate and lackluster orchestral arrangements. When we think of Charles, we think of the jazzy, soulful riffs that would just fly off his fingers. Where is this keyboard dexterity now? Instead, the album has plenty of flutes, violins, and cellos. Charles has been praised for his ability to bring country music into the gospel genre, but some music just doesn’t work with cheesy classical arrangements. On other occasions, the musicianship of the collaborator isn’t shown off as much as it could be. Willie Nelson on “It Was A Very Good Year” hardly has an opportunity to play the folksy guitar he’s known for, and his distinctive Western twang doesn’t work well in a slow, melodramatic ballad. Diana Krall is also somewhat unimpressive on “You Don’t Know Me,” despite her prominence in her own genre, jazz vocals. There isn’t that crispness generally associated with her work; she seems to be trying too hard on this track.

Nevertheless, there are some real gems on Genius Loves Company. A duet with B.B. King is exactly what it’s supposed to be: two bluesy icons trade piano and guitar riffs lamenting a life of vice as a “Sinner’s Prayer.” Gladys Knight is simply inspiring as she displays her vocal versatility from Nina Simone alto to feverish soprano Aretha Franklin in the spiritual “Heaven Help Us All.” The gospel choir backing Charles and Knight is actually a nice touch here. You can tell these two really fed off each other because Ray seems a lot more energized by the sheer musical power of his collaborator.

The last track is the live finale “Crazy Love” with Van Morrison, one of Charles’s biggest admirers. An odd couple, Charles and the rocker work well since they both have low, slightly uncut voices — perfect for upbeat blues.

When Ray Charles passed away this year on June 10 the world truly did lose, as his famous moniker suggests, a genius. This man invented soul. And if a single man was able to inspire this many successful performers, there is no doubt that he has every right to share a little genius with them.

Archived article by Elliot Singer
Red Letter Daze Contributor