Gil Asakawa's Nikkei View | “Ray Sings, Basie Swings” is a ghostly concept album
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“Ray Sings, Basie Swings” is a ghostly concept album

It’s a somewhat goulish idea: take a recording of a late, great artist, and shore it up with new backing tracks. It’s been done before, with Natalie Cole’s “duet” with her father, and the remaining Beatles backing a newly-discovered John Lennon solo track. And if you wanna look at it from a contemporary perspective, digital “mashups” that overlay, for instance, Nirvana with Destiny’s Child accomplish the same idea with spooky success.

On “Ray Sings, Basie Swings,” the legendary vocalist is paired up via technology to the current and living version of the Count Basie Orchestra, and the result is a brassy, sassy and sometimes strange album from the grave.

This CD came to be when tapes were recently discovered labeled merely, “Ray/Basie.” Although Ray Charles had performed many times with the big band led by pianist Count Basie, there had never been a recording of the matchup. The new tapes turned out to be separate sets recorded in 1973 in Europe, of Charles in a killer vocal performance but his backup band was poorly recorded. The Basie Band part of the recording was just that – a concert sans Charles. But the Charles part of the recording was good enough that it inspired producer Greg Field to invite the current Basie band into the studio (Basie himself died in the ’80s, and Charles died in 2004) and play carefully conceived arrangements that fit the existing vocal tracks.

The results mostly are rousing mid-career versions of Charles’ repertoire, from musical mainstays such as “Oh, What a Beautiful Morning” to rock standards such as “Let the Good Times Roll,” rock reworkings including the Beatles’ “Long and Winding Road” and the early ’70s Melanie hit, “Look What They’ve Done to My Song, Ma.” The album closes with the requisite take of “Georgia on My Mind.”

Listening to the songs, there’s no denying Charles’ mastery during this period – his voice soars effortlessly through his gospel, blues and country roots. But the songs are somewhat betrayed by the excesses of the period itself – the horn arrangements, which fit the performances, are too brassy, too big-band, and evoke Vegas-y excess more than great jazz, blues or R&B. The Melanie song, which was annoying in its original version, is still irritating even sung by the great Ray Charles. It probably fit just fine on the stage of the Sands Casino on the strip.

Despite its somewhat creepy origins and the limitations of the era in which Charles’ vocals were captured, the CD’s more successful than not. The band never feels disconnected from the singing, which is a pretty incredible feat, although I wonder how Charles would have felt if the music was in fact done at the same time. I’ve seen Charles in concert, and he’s a very picky taskmaster, ordering bandmembers around and chastising them onstage if they missed a cue or played the wrong note.

True Ray Charles (and Basie) fans will probably avoid this on principle; but it’s a pretty interesting product of technology. And let’s face it, Charles really does sing the hell out of these songs, and it’s good to have that available for the ages.