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Remembering Ray

Music | Three recent releases highlight the wide-ranging Charles

Issue: "Clutching two, dropping four," April 23, 2011

It will be seven years this June since the death of Ray Charles, but several new releases suggest that neither he nor his music are in danger of being forgotten any time soon.

Not that Ray Charles Live in Concert (Concord) is new. It was, after all, first released in 1965, the year after the performances it captures were recorded at Los Angeles' Shrine Civic Auditorium. But in those days the double live album was as yet undreamt of in the philosophies of record companies, so the only version of the concert that has existed until now was the 12-song one that ABC Records edited down to fit onto 12 inches of vinyl.

The new edition adds seven songs that practically double the length of the original. And besides restoring a seven-minute version of Charles' first mainstream No. 1 hit, "Georgia on My Mind," to the program (how ABC left that one off the vinyl version is anyone's guess), it also reinstates performances of "Busted" (which had reached No. 4 in its studio incarnation) and "Two Ton Tessie," whose punch lines would probably run afoul of anti-hate-crime legislation today ("Her appendix had to come out fast. / They couldn't operate, so they had to blast") but that elicited an auditorium's worth of laughter 47 years ago. (Meanwhile, Charles' and the Raeletts' similarly borderline-insensitive imitation of a Japanese vocal group singing "Pop Goes the Weasel" on the "What'd I Say"--following "Finale" falls flat.)

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Not to be outdone, Blue Note Records has released Here We Go Again: Celebrating the Genius of Ray Charles, a compendium of two 2009 concerts at the Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts by Willie Nelson, Wynton Marsalis, and their guest vocalist, Norah Jones.

Classy but in touch with their roots, Marsalis and his jazz quintet are the ideal musicians to recreate the vibe of a vintage Charles gig. And, were Charles alive today, Lincoln Center is exactly the sort of venue that he would be playing. But it would be hard to find singers less worthy of "celebrating" his impassioned soul-gospel vocal style than Willie Nelson and Norah Jones.

At least Nelson, who has recorded with Marsalis before and who scored a chart-topping country hit ("Seven Spanish Angels") with Charles in 1984, is comfortable with the material. Jones, on the other hand, except on "Makin' Whoopee," is doing well even to sound fully awake. Thankfully, the same can't be said of Marsalis, who, singer though he isn't, sounds fully engaged (and fully engaging) during his brief vocal turns on "Busted," "What'd I Say," and "Hit the Road Jack."

Frankly, uneven though the "celebration" is, it will have done the world a solid service if it causes lovers of Charles' genius to investigate last fall's excellent Concord revelation, Rare Genius: The Undiscovered Masters. Compiled from never-finished recordings going back to the 1970s and posthumously re-touched for maximum seamlessness by producer John Burk with help from the likes of Keb Mo and Eric Benét, it's a reminder of the Jericho-like effect that Charles' instincts and voice could have on the walls dividing genres.

The sumptuous nightclub-friendly numbers ("Wheel of Fortune"), the blues ("It Hurts to Be in Love"), the gospel-inflected funk ("I'm Gonna Keep Singin'"), the contemporary-in-any-era-sounding pop-soul ("Love's Gonna Bite You Back," "I Don't Want No One but You"), and the country ("She's Gone") one takes for granted.

The Burl Ives cover ("A Little Bitty Tear Let Me Down"), on the other hand, and the duet with Johnny Cash on Kris Kristofferson's repentance classic "Why Me, Lord?" take hitting rock bottom to new depths and new heights simultaneously.

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