|Review by Oakland October 17, 2007 (10 of 10 found this review helpful)
|After only the very first listen I smelled the sweet aroma of Grammy Award nomination or win all over this recording, especially for Production and Engineering and may be other categories. If it is so honored this time the Concord/Telarc group will be justly deserving unlike when a few years ago the Concord “Ray Charles: Genius Loves Company”, I felt, riding a tidal wave of sympathy for Ray Charles garnered a fist full of Grammy Awards at the expense of a most deserving Usher. After only one listen I can say, safely this new release is far more “real” to me than “Genius Loves Company”. Yes, I am wary because this collaboration is almost too good to be true. But on first listen I must say I was profoundly impressed. It has only gotten better since then.
I found Ray Charles’ voice to be most real, unexpectedly so. And while I had no intention of doing so when I first sat down to listen, at the completion of the SACD I was compelled to dig through my vinyl collection and retrieved a few Ray Charles Lps and 45s. And I must admit that, initially, I spent as much or more time listening to these old recordings than I did the SACD. And to be sure those Lps sound as good as I have ever heard them (except for the ticks and pops). And most sound damn good! But one thing became all so clear and that is in no way did those Lps capture the fullness, richness, and passion (although see below) of Ray Charles that seemingly approached what I heard in “Ray Sings Basie Swings”. Heard live (as well as I can remember) Charles’ voice was literally soul piercing for lack of a better description. I believe the SACD approached that level for me (although not with the “soul” or energy of some of the old recordings which has more has to do with the stage of Ray’s career at the time and not recording “quality”)
Now some will say that I need to spend more bucks on my vinyl rig or spring for some 200-gram audiophile pressings of my Ray Charles vinyl collection, or get a good record cleaning machine or all three. Or I should just get a life. Well, I have no intentions of changing any of the above (except for, perhaps, the record cleaning machine) especially if “Ray Sings Basie Swings” holds up to continued scrutiny, as it fully has so far.
While going in I had reservations on whether Ray Charles’ voice would be reproduced in a way that was truly authentic, I had far less reservations on how the Count Basie Orchestra would sound. I only have one recording of the current band; the SACD on the 88 label but it has become a demonstration disc, of sorts, for big band genre. And here, too, in “Ray Sings Basie Swings” the orchestra does not disappoint. I was specifically listening for the quality of Butch Miles on drums and while the spotlight was never shone on Miles as it was in the cut “Whirly-Bird” on the “Basie is Back” SACD the sound quality, while not quite “there”, was close indeed. However, in track 9, “Feel So Bad”, the brass, especially, is strident, and not really enjoyable. Otherwise, on all other tracks, Ray Charles, the Raelettes and the Count Basie Orchestra are superbly recorded.
Of course, the ultimate measure of the success of this SACD for me is whether a true and flawless synergy results from the substantial and unique digital manipulation. But as much as I grew up in and around Ray Charles’ music I consider myself an awkward neophyte when it comes judging the “authenticity” this release. Can this release pass as the real deal?
So I called some friends and acquaintances who I know to be dye-in-the-wool Ray Charles fans from way back. My plan was to "spring" this SACD on them not telling them it has digitally put together just to let them hear it unbiased. Well, my plan was foiled. Everyone I spoke to *already* had the *CD* for weeks or longer and anything I mentioned was "old news". I found in my tiny sampling of Ray Charles devotees that there was unanimity that “Ray Sings Basie Swings” is indeed the *real deal*. They *love* the CD, content, presentation, and sound, *as is*, no complaints, just pure adoration and are appreciative to the bottom of their shoes that this disc exists, and all without the advantage of SACD technology. And yes, the this latter day marriage of Ray Charles, Raelettes, and the current Count Basie Orchestra and play with down home synergy.
And that brings me to an unusual oddity about the SACD. There is an almost stark disparity of sound quality between the two-channel and the multi-channel. Others have also mentioned this and the sound quality difference seem real. My experience with Telarc releases has usually been while the two-channel recording is very good to excellent, the multi-channel is also excellent but even more so! With this release the two-channel sound quality seems good but clearly not up to the level of the multi-channel. Michael Bishop, Telarc’s engineer extraordinaire on this project, offers a pretty conclusive explanation, in my opinion, on why this is the case. Mr. Bishop clearly distances Telarc from the two channel product mix (both Red Book and SACD two-channel layers as well as the identical Lp release). Please read his words posted on the Hi-Rez forum at: http://www.audioasylum.com/forums/hirez/messages/23/239827.html
Mr. Bishop offers enlightening information on this issue elsewhere in the thread. But let me be clear, the two channel does sound very good and it has its moments of excellence. In one track (I don’t remember which one) I was almost fooled into thinking that distinct music information was coming from the sides even though I knew I was listening to the two-channel recording.
Also, this release is very much unlike the typical Telarc classical jazz or classical recordings where you have to turn the volume control up to uncork great sound. It was the opposite here I had to turn the volume control down, way down (for a typical Telarc release), lest the music be too loud.
As one who when he thinks of Ray Charles thinks of the “Atlantic years” and the early years at ABC Paramount (also Impulse). I was, at first, only marginally inspired by the “Ray Sings Basie Swings” song selection prior to listening and while pleased upon initial listening, was not overly enthused about the delivery (Charles’ 1975 singing style). But subsequent playings quickly brought into sharp focus that my misgivings was much more a reflection on me and my lack of appreciation of the depth and breadth of Ray Charles that these recordings show only so well. Further it is Ray Charles, himself, that sets the tempo and delivery style on this disc. Long gone were 1955 and 1965. That is where and who he was in 1975.
Charles was great/brilliant in the in the 50s *and* the 70s (as on this disc) just as surely as Louis Armstrong was great in the 30s and the 50s. But there, in both men, was clearly an ongoing evolving of their greatness, a "renaissance", if you will, which took them to a different place at different points in their careers. Make no mistake about it there is substantial doses of the “old Ray” here, especially in songs like “Let the Good Times Roll” (probably the only Atlantic era song), “Busted”, “Every Saturday Night” and really throughout!. And I find the content and the delivery in “Ray Sings Basie Swings” for Ray, "the Raelettes", and the Count Basie Orchestra to be *extremely* satisfying, with no handicap needed.
I do hope this release is a resounding success, both artistically and financially. I already want more. In listening to my vinyl a common thread I noticed was Ray Charles’ voice was consistently strong and recorded very well. But the background musicians, while clearly talented were often not so well recorded and most often sounded thin, “wiry” or distant. Based on what I have heard here the Count Basie Orchestra would be a natural match. For example, as I was listening to “I Don’t Need No Doctor” from one of the albums I could not help but imagine Count Basie (and the new Raelettes) kickin’ in accompaniment. I would love to hear and see a re-introduction to the public (most for the first time) some of the pre crossover or cusp music of Ray Charles when he was, for many, his most penetrating, edgy, trash talkin’ and creatively unfettered, without regard to a wider audience.
But in addition, to some more of these songs from the 50s and 60s I would include Charles’ “America the Beautiful”, which for me, he has “soul” ownership. In fact, I would title such a release “America the Beautiful”. Go to http://www.raycharles.com/flash/atb.swf
Robert C. Lang
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