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Max's Multi-Channel/Stereo SACD Of The Month
Jump for Joy
Every once in a while a SACD is issued that makes me want to jump up and down in enthusiastic salute. It may be that great music creeps back deeply enough into the nervous system to tickle the pleasure center, the impulse to dance and jump for joy. Ray Sings: Basie Swings (Telarc; Hybrid SACD 63679) is the latest one such. This one's a keeper, and so good that you may have trouble getting to the vendors before it is sold out! So go for it, now. Seriously! Well ...ASAP, anyway.
Recently, Grammy and Bebop Dudious went to see the film, Hairspray, The Musical, and when we got out of the Dude Ranch (a compound of five screening rooms called the Dudely Theater Complex, on Dude Boulevard here in Baltimore) we were bursting with remnants of dance energy. We danced all the way back to the parking lot, just rockin' and boppin' and singin' our songs. Imagine your grandmother and grandfather making such fools of themselves. Try to keep that image in your head. If the vision of your elders dancing to their own doo-wops singing lights you up, go see Hairspray. And read on.
Ray Sings: Basie Swings (Telarc: Hybrid SACD 63679).
Quick cut to a beach house in an old Atlantic Oceanside resort town. Use your imagination, ‘cuz I don't have time to describe it to you. There we were. Four generations of the Dudious clan: my moms, "The Duchess"; my wife and I, "Grammy and Bebop"; our two daughters, "The Pointless Sisters"; our two sons-in-law, "Paolo" and "Ravi"; and our two grand-daughters, "Gretta" and "Maya." There we were, preparing dinner.
The divisions of labor were just establishing themselves: the guys were out on a beer run, the gals were busy with the food, I had to figure out how to get the hi-fi—er, um... low-fi sound system to play, and how to pop a SACD into the childproof and very lo-tech stereo setup we had with us (a Walkman SACD player, the Sonic Impact switching amp, some Home Depot outdoor AC lines as speaker cables, and a pair of loud dashboard speakers I'd put in small boxes). I chose Ray Sings: Basie Swings because it had made such an impression on me while driving down the ocean. (That's pronounced "downy aition" in the Baltimore dialect, Hon.)
Before I could ask the assemblage how they liked the music I saw this: The Pointless sisters were involved in showing each other the dance "moves" they had lately picked up in their social scenes, like the women in The Big Chill, and were dancing around the dining table, occasionally doing some 360 twirl, and offering each other a hip bump as they got close enough while they laid the place settings. The Duchess sang along with Ray's interpretation of the Rogers and Hammerstein tune from Oklahoma, "Oh, What a Beautiful Morning," in a memorable Marlene Dietrich imitation. Grammy was trying to invent a high harmony, and succeeding now and then. "Maya, Princess of Papaya" (going on five years old), was spinning around and doing a few of the moves that she'd learned in her pre-school ballet class. "Gretta" (just twelve months old) in her Pac 'n Play, was shaking her booty in rhythm with the music, whatever tempo, swaying in delirium. I was just geezing along, singing now and then in my barbequed baritone, and Bill Cosby-ing (I can't bring myself to call what I do, at my age, "dancing") around the room.
Whose music could move four generations like that? Give each generation a way to connect? Ah! You've got it by now. Ray Charles singing his music: Gershwin, Rogers and Hammerstein, Buck Owens, Don Gibson, Lennon and McCartney, Hoagy Carmichael, et al (Fleecie Moore & Sam Theard, Jerry West & Silas Hogan, Harlan Howard, Boudleaux & Felice Bryant, James Johnson & Leslie Temple, and Melanie Safka, with whose work I am apologetically unfamiliar); all accompanied by the Count Basie Band. That's whose.
This music has amazing appeal. This music crosses all the categories and appeals to all the demographic niches. If you are black, white, brown, yellow, or glenn plaid; if your family originated on any of the five continents or on the seven seas; if you are old, young, or middle-aged; if you have dropped out of high school or finished medical school, or have been educated to any place in between; if you are a millionaire or down on your luck; this album will make you twist and shout. Or, if you know the words and like to sing along, there are enough slow golden oldies to keep you singing. And if you like to dance, Ray Sings: Basie Swings will keep you dancing. I mean, this album is a joy.
During the mid-seventies Ray Charles, at the height of his powers as a singer and arranger, took his band on a tour of Europe. The concert producer, Norman Granz, had the contracts written so that his label (he was also owner of Pablo Records), would have ownership of the tapes of the Ray's concerts. For decades the original mix-down tapes sat in storage at Pablo Records until Pablo was sold to the Fantasy label. Then Fantasy was absorbed by Concord, and now, most recently, Telarc was also absorbed by Concord. Now we have a pretty volatile situation. The thirty-year old tapes had fallen into the hands of the best recording engineers in the business, and it wasn't too long before the idea arose to get the Count Basie Band to accompany Ray.
Not the old Count Basie Band, but the still touring, still sharp (with some of the best jazz musicians of the current generation) young Count Basie Band would accompany Ray. So, the selected tunes were to be re-arranged, with the band's parts nestled into the pauses in Ray's singing, to sound as if they had been performed together in the same studio out there in cyber-space, last night. Ray, you might remember, started his career as a jazz pianist, and I have a vinyl LP of him jamming with Milt Jackson (the vibraphonist of the much heralded Modern Jazz Quartet) to remind me of how good he was. So uniting Ray with the Basie Band would be a homecoming, a bringing together of two pillars of the "Jazzistocracy." And this is what has been wrought by this collaboration of Ray's old tapes, Concord-Telarc's recording engineers, and the 2007version of The Count Basie Band - Ray Sings: Basie Swings. To know more, you'll have to read the album notes, which means you have to buy the album. It is gang-busters, I mean award-winning quality, GANG-BUSTERS!!
Ray begins this set with a syncopated, soulful treatment of "Oh What a Beautiful Morning" that just bops trippingly along, with occasional grunts, growls and shouts that marked his vocal style, his soulful piano chops, and explosive punctuation marks from the band. He moves from this Broadway opener to a funkier (complete with a Hammond B-3 organ solo) arrangement of "Let the Good Times Roll." Then back down tempo to the timeless Gershwin ballad, "How Long Has This Been Going On?" This is sung in Ray's inimitable fashion, with the band playing a supernal back up. Listening to this one I understood how armies of chicks have been digging on Ray's stuff back to the ‘50s. He creates a mood of intimacy just for the listener.
"Every Saturday Night" is just a good old funky tune, with the Raelettes in close harmony. It is very joyous and will defy you not to get up and dance. "Busted" is a song long associated with Ray, and it's filled with ironic commentary on family and friends reaction to a guy in financial trouble. It underlines the old neighborhood axiom, "A friend in need is a pain in the ass." This is an outstanding arrangement for the band, among others ranging from pretty damn good to excellent, about which the least one can say is: This arrangement is "Outfuckingstanding!!"
And then it's off to the country tune, "Crying Time," by Buck Owens. This one might bring a tear from a stone cold cadaver – even you. With the band sliding in and out of minor mode, the Raelettes offering tasty licks, and then a final duet with Ray, who can resist? As if that weren't enough, Ray bounces back with an up tempo version of another tear-jerker, Don Gibson's "I Can't Stop Loving You." I think these two might require a box of Kleenex. But he's just softening us up for the next tug on our heartstrings, "Come Live with Me." This, a truly gorgeous song with another virtuoso accompaniment by the band, is a passionate shepherd's plea to his love to commit to him. In my modest opinion, nobody pleads it better. Not even the Brit crooner, Christopher Marlowe.
Back up tempo we go with "Feel So Bad," a story of love lost forced through the prism of keeping one's self upbeat. It's an exemplary tale of how not to slide down the slippery slope to depression. It's cool. Ray sings the blues away even though he is down in the dumps. Next is Ray's cover of The Beatles' "The Long and Winding Road." He takes this one at a moderately slow tempo, and lets the band carry him along to some big climaxes, a good moment to show off your system (even more so in multi-channel SACD). Its message is how one has to overcome the downs in order to get to the ups. Anyone can groove when times are up. It takes some kind of philosophical enlightenment and discipline to groove behind the downs.
Penultimately (look it up), there is "Look What They've Done To My Song" sung in English and French with the Raelettes singing as a duet partner, and the band kicking things along. Ultimately (or lastly), Ray offers Hoagy Carmichael's "Georgia on My Mind." This is a killer, as much a signature song of Ray's as "What I Say" or "I Got a Woman," and a fit conclusion to the album. The band does another truly great job of backing, as do the Raelettes. All the elements come together in this one. It's truly dynamite.
Some Random Thoughts
Ray, by this time, had become an accomplished singer, able to take liberties with the presentation of the lyrics, to take liberties with the beat, to sing in falsetto, to hit his imaginary "octave button" to drop down for an instant when he thought it worked well to accent some word or phrase, or to sing either the lead or the accompaniment parts while singing with the Raelettes. There lives in legend the time when the Raelettes were caught in traffic, so Ray sang each of their parts in falsetto on one of his earlier songs. Twenty years on the road had given time to experiment and had allowed Ray to make of himself a virtuoso singer. The band is an equally virtuosic ensemble. On a few tunes they do some fabulous Kansas City "section work," with the brass and the reeds kicking some fast and intricate riff back and forth, making the difficult seem easy. Like Ray, the band has a flawless sense of time, and never misses a beat. There are many "grace notes" that can go unnoticed if you don't really settle in and concentrate on the performances as you might concentrate while reading a book for an exam. I like headphones for that kind of listening. This album lends itself to that kind of approach to the music, if you can stop dancing long enough.
I'd say congrats go to everyone involved in bringing this SACD to the public. The list has to include the album's producer, Gregg Field; the director of the Basie Band, Bill Hughes; and the recording engineers, led by Don Murray. The list is very long on this one, but the album notes include everyone who contributed, including the names of all the guys in the band.
This SACD is one of the best examples I know of technology in service of the music. The film, Ray, has generated new interest in Ray's music. As long as Ray Charles is played at parties, he will be remembered and loved. As long as lovers do their thing to his ballad singing, we share intimate moments in our lives with Ray. In that sense Ray Lives! I think we all should start spray-painting that phrase on underpasses, and near railway and subway stops. It makes sense to me. Boogie on down to your record store, tell ‘em Max sent you, and tell ‘em Ray Lives! Ciao, bambini.
[A different version of this review is published at Audiophile Audition.]