Ray Sings – Basie Swings, a new album featuring Ray Charles and the Count Basie Orchestra, is a sort of amalgam that’s been put together by combining several sources. This certainly isn’t the first time that deceased performers have shown up in a new album via the wonders of technology, and it’s really up to the individual listener whether this impacts their enjoyment of the album. I don’t have a horse in this race, but I’ll give you some background before we move on to the music.
Ray himself was known to be a studio control-board wizard, spending countless hours tinkering with his recordings, and he was always interested in new techniques. He was also a long-time admirer of Basie and his music, so the concept of an album teaming them is valid, and that might have helped move the project forward. The actual genesis of the album was the discovery of some tapes that were made in Europe by Ray back in 1973, backed by his small band and the Raelettes. During the same time period and also in Europe, the Basie band was performing concerts and they too showed up on some of the newly-discovered tapes.
Here’s where it gets interesting. Some enterprising pros decided to see what they could do with this material, using some modern digital magic. It turned out that Ray’s solos were of a technical quality that would form the basis for a good sound. Unfortunately his backups and the Basie band material was all pretty useless. Undeterred, the producers brought in the current Basie band, still active under the leadership of Bill Hughes, and spent a lot of time and effort re-creating full band backups for Ray’s vocals. They also got Patti Austin to work extensively on replicating the sound of the Raelettes, both in arranging and performing.
I listened to this album several times, and at first I couldn’t help but listen for signs that the way it was created was making a difference. After a while, I found myself getting into it and just enjoying it musically. This is, after all, the strong, vibrant Ray Charles of thirty years ago, and that’s a good foundation for any musical effort. For the most part, the mixing in of the Basie band is skillfully done, using it as either a lush big band backup for Ray’s vocals, or in some stretches allowing it to swing alone during Ray’s pauses. “Let The Good Times Roll” is a great example of this, with the band sounding especially good alternating with Ray’s equally strong voice. The replacement Raelettes do well too on those songs where they show up, among those a lively “Every Saturday Night” that I thoroughly enjoyed.
One of the strengths of the album is that even though it includes many of his hit songs, such as “Georgia On My Mind”, “Cryin’ Time”, and “Busted, it also gives the listener a chance to enjoy a few that you might not find on the typical Ray Charles album. Examples that come to mind are his surprisingly high-spirited treatment of “Oh What A Beautiful Morning” from Oklahoma, and he even tackles a Beatles tune, “The Long And Winding Road”, creating a decidedly different sound. Another very good listen is “Look What They’ve Done To My Song”, a great version of this tune that sounds as if Ray was really enjoying himself. My favorite, which I’m providing as a listening sample, is a testament to Ray’s blues side — an outstanding rendition of “Feel So Bad”.
There is no doubt in my mind that some listeners won’t be able to get past the unusual way this album was put together, and I certainly respect that viewpoint (and it should provide for some lively discussion) but I will say that those who are not bothered by its origins will be more than satisfied with this addition to their musical library.
Ray Sings – Basie Swings, on the Concord label. Twelve songs total.