Genius + Soul = Jazz - remembering Ray Charles, revolutionary

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 21 February, 2015, 11:20pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 21 February, 2015, 11:20pm

Genius + Soul = Jazz
Ray Charles

Ray Charles didn't call himself a genius, but his record companies liked to. Not counting a number of compilations, at least six of his album titles included the word, starting with The Genius of Ray Charles in 1959 and ending with 2002's Genius Loves Company.

The music industry regards as a "genius" any artist, songwriter or producer who has knocked out more than three consecutive hits. The description fits Charles much better than most. Blind from the age of seven, as a child he learned to play classical piano from Braille musical notation, but was drawn more to jazz and blues.

He developed a piano and vocal style that initially reflected the influence of Nat "King" Cole, but with a huge 1955 hit, I Got a Woman, found a combination of gospel and blues that evolved into what was eventually called soul.

Sixty years on, it is difficult to imagine how revolutionary that mingling of black American sacred and secular music seemed at the time. For a black artist to play country music - traditionally an all-white preserve - was scarcely less radical. To Charles, it was all just music, and he brought a uniquely soulful quality to every genre he adopted - including jazz.

As well as his instantly identifiable style as an interpretative singer, which defined his versions of Georgia on My Mind, Unchain My Heart and I Can't Stop Loving You - to mention just three early hits - Charles was a highly accomplished pianist and organist.

He pioneered the use of the Wurlitzer electric piano at a time when few reputable pianists would touch a non-acoustic instrument, and used it to particularly good effect on his risqué 1959 hit, What'd I Say. The piano sound and riff, and the sexual frankness in the lyrics and the call-and-response vocals all had a major influence on 1960s pop and rock. The Beatles were among those who acknowledged its importance, as did Eric Clapton.

As a jazz musician, Charles could hold his own with the best, and his discography includes albums with Milt Jackson and Betty Carter as well as Genius + Soul = Jazz, which featured a mixture of top New York session musicians and players from the Count Basie band, with Charles himself substituting for Basie.

The album is mostly instrumental, and was intended as a showcase for Charles' Hammond B-3 organ playing, but it includes two vocals that are among the finest of his recorded blues performances.

The arrangements of the tunes were divided between Ralph Burns and Quincy Jones - Charles had taken a young Jones under his wing and taught him the basics of arranging for a big band - and Burns' chart for I've Got News for You and Jones' for I'm Gonna Move to the Outskirts of Town provide hard-swinging backing for Charles at his bluesy best.

Other stand-out tracks include Bobby Timmons' Moanin', The Clovers' One Mint Julep, and George and Ira Gershwin's Strike Up the Band.

A work of genius? You be the judge.