[JPL] A Union Made in Musical Heaven: Two Legends, Neither Living

r durfee rdurfee2003 at yahoo.com
Wed Oct 4 18:17:31 EDT 2006

October 3, 2006
Critic’s Notebook | Music
A Union Made in Musical Heaven: Two Legends, Neither
Ray Charles and Count Basie never recorded together,
to the best of anyone’s recollection. But that hasn’t
stopped the realization of an album called “Ray Sings,
Basie Swings,” which Concord Records and Starbucks
Hear Music are jointly releasing today. In fact, that
lack of precedent has been one selling point in a
carefully plotted promotional campaign for the album,
a byproduct of artistry and technology that
illustrates the commodification of classic pop in our

The seeds for “Ray Sings, Basie Swings” were sown late
last year when John Burk, a Concord executive, trawled
the label’s vaults and came across a box with the
promising label of “Ray/Basie.” As it turned out, the
tapes inside offered no evidence of collaboration:
they were soundboard recordings from a European tour
in the 1970’s, with each artist leading his own band.
The sound quality of the Ray Charles tapes was uneven,
with his lead vocal coming through clearly but the
music sounding distant and muddy. 

Mr. Burk, who was the chief producer on “Genius Loves
Company” — Charles’s last studio effort, issued in
2004, after his death but before the release of “Ray,”
the biopic starring Jamie Foxx — refused to let
history have the final word. He thought it seemed
feasible to graft Charles’s vocal tracks digitally
onto fresh backgrounds recorded by the present-day
Basie Orchestra, sans Basie, who died in 1984. 

So Mr. Burk brought in Gregg Field, a producer and
engineer who also happens to be a former drummer in
bands led by Basie and Charles. And through a
painstaking process that Mr. Field has often compared
to “painting the Sistine Chapel with a Q-tip,” the
producers managed to create a nearly seamless studio
accompaniment for croons and cries last heard onstage
some 30 years ago. 

We’ve seen this sort of beyond-the-grave work before.
In 1991 the Top 40 charts made room for
“Unforgettable,” Natalie Cole’s séance of a duet with
her father, Nat King Cole, who died in 1965. Five
years later, the Coles exchanged verses once again,
less successfully, on “Stardust.” And in 1999 there
was “What a Wonderful World,” a one-sided alliance
between the long-departed Louis Armstrong and the
still-breathing Kenny G. 

“Ray Sings, Basie Swings” feels more impressive
because of a brilliant sustained performance by
Charles, in his 40’s and at the height of his powers.
But for the record, Basie himself is nowhere to be
found, and there’s something slick and airless about
Shelly Berg’s arrangements. The new Raelettes, led by
Patti Austin, sound duly sassy but a shade too
contemporary, as if airbrushed. On the other hand,
they’d go nicely with a latte.

Starbucks and Concord, which together sold six million
copies of “Genius Loves Company,” have packaged the
new album with some purposeful allusions. “Ray Sings,
Basie Swings” is a variation on “Count Basie Swings,
Joe Williams Sings,” a hit album in 1955, and “Basie
Swings, Bennett Sings,” Tony Bennett’s debut with the
band a few years later. More flagrantly, the album’s
secondary title, “Ray Charles + Count Basie Orchestra
= Genius2,” echoes the formulation on one of the most
striking titles in the Ray Charles catalog, “Genius +
Soul = Jazz.” 

That 1961 Impulse! album paired Charles with the Count
Basie Orchestra, minus, Basie and featured
arrangements by Quincy Jones, who received secondary
billing on the cover. Ray Charles didn’t do much
singing on the album; he played a Hammond B-3 organ,
not his usual instrument. Concord acknowledges this
history in one sense — Joey DeFrancesco, as a proxy
for Charles, plays B-3 — but also seems intent on
obscuring it. Press releases distributed this summer
asserted that “ ‘Ray Sings, Basie Swings’ marks the
first and only recordings in which the ‘Genius’ is
backed by the legendary bandleader’s orchestra,”
meaning Basie. Mr. Jones, who praises the album as an
“amazing collaboration” in a blurb on the inside
cover, obviously didn’t vet that claim.

Mr. Jones was also the bridge between Basie and Frank
Sinatra, who established a durable template for
marketers of American song. “Sinatra at the Sands” is
probably the best-known album to feature the Count
Basie Orchestra behind a popular singer, and so it
hardly seems coincidental that the cover illustration
of “Ray Sings, Basie Swings” features a similar
graphic design: a horizontal row of asterisks with a
rectangular block of text. 

Mr. Field, the producer of “Ray Sings, Basie Swings,”
has a pertinent tie to Sinatra too: he played on the
1993 album “Duets” and its sequel, “Duets II.” Those
releases, produced by Phil Ramone, paired Sinatra with
singers ranging from Barbra Streisand to Bono, and
technology played a big part in bringing them
together. Of course, that technology — fiber-optic
connections that allowed Sinatra’s duet partners
literally to phone their parts in — now seems
downright quaint. At the time, it sparked impassioned
debate about what constitutes a performance: in The
New York Times, Stephen Holden hailed “Duets” as “a
stunning intergenerational collaboration” while
William Safire called it “a series of artistic

The public was far less conflicted. “Duets” became the
first multiplatinum album of Sinatra’s career, with
more than three million copies sold. For
adult-contemporary artists, the duets concept almost
became a license for printing money; Ms. Streisand and
Elton John are among the artists to cash in. A more
recent example, Notorious B.I.G.’s “Duets: The Final
Chapter,” could be offered as proof that duets albums
aren’t just for your parents anymore. It also
demonstrates how little difference it makes,
commercially speaking, whether the artist at the
center of the action is actually alive. (The album was
certified platinum within two months of release.)

“Genius Loves Company,” which featured some production
by Phil Ramone, was promoted as an answer to “Duets,”
and it sold appropriately: it’s the only multiplatinum
album in the Ray Charles catalog. It also won eight
Grammy Awards, including album of the year. That’s a
tough benchmark for the new album, even though it
captures Charles in much better form. 

After all, it will be up against the first true duets
effort from Mr. Bennett, released by RPM/Columbia
Records last week in honor of his 80th birthday. His
“Duets: An American Classic,” produced by Mr. Ramone,
features Bono and Ms. Streisand but no fiber optics,
so to speak. When Mr. Bennett performed last Tuesday
at the Theater at Madison Square Garden, he welcomed
the singers Natalie Cole, Elvis Costello and Michael
Bublé onstage, in the flesh. 

Nothing beats that sort of interaction, but sometimes
you’ve got to do the best you can with what you have.
A few years ago the Sinatra estate authorized a
concert production that featured, among other things,
some of Sinatra’s televised performances synched to a
live 40-piece orchestra; in New York it played at
Radio City Music Hall. 

Surely the team behind “Ray Sings, Basie Swings” has
entertained the thought of presenting Ray Charles in
similar fashion, using archival film. Failing that,
there’s always Plan B. The Basie Orchestra is
available; has anybody heard from Jamie Foxx?


Roy Durfee
P.O. Box 40219
Albuquerque, New Mexico 87196-0219
rdurfee2003 at yahoo.com

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