Ray Charles – Genius Loves Company – Concord /Hear Music CRE 35530-00 Tenth Anniversary Reissue CD (69:02) + DVD (56:37), ****:

(Ray Charles duets with Norah Jones; James Taylor; Diana Krall; Elton John; Natalie Cole; Bonnie Raitt; Willie Nelson; Michael McDonald; B.B. King; Gladys Knight; Johnny Mathis; Van Morrison; Take Six and Poncho Sanchez)

The word genius is used often in the musical world. In the case of Ray Charles, it is certainly appropriate. Charles not only impacted rhythm and blues, he was able to bring his personal influence to assorted genres. Country music, rock, pop, jazz and soul embraced this pioneer. His soulful vocals and interpretative skills immediately transform songs into Ray Charles classics. His cover of “America The Beautiful” is considered by many to be the definitive treatment. So, it’s not too surprising that musical stars would clamor to record a duet with Ray. In 2004, they got their chance. In the most anticipated recording since Sinatra’s electronically-assembled 1993 Duets, Ray CharlesGenius Loves Company combined a variety of duet performances that became Charles’ final studio album.

In addition to the guest vocalists, there were scores of session musicians that contributed to this project. The album was a smash, earning triple platinum status. Produced by John Burk and Phil Ramone, It earned eight Grammy awards, including Album Of The Year and Record Of The Year. Ray Charles’ commercial viability had waned in the late nineties and new millennium. Genius Loves Company competed against hip hop and other modern genre artists and re-introduced a bona fide legend. Not long after the release, Ray Charles passed away.

Concord Music Group has released a tenth anniversary edition of Genius Loves Company. The first version is a CD plus DVD documentary. Comprised of fourteen tracks, (thirteen actually, with one a capella song) a collection of duet attains different levels of success. The opening track, “Here We Go Again” (from Ray Charles Invites You To Listen) is a perfect match with Norah Jones. Jones plays piano and delivers a sweet, languid vocal that meshes with her “hero”. Charles innate soul has always breathed new life into country standards. Billy Preston (a former band mate) adds a gospel-inflected organ before the harmonized finish. The duet with Diana Krall on “You Don’t Know Me” (from Modern Sounds In Country & Western Music) captures the right touch of country and jazz to maximize the collaboration.

Blues supporter and multiple Grammy winner Bonnie Raitt teams up with Ray for a memorable performance on “Do I Ever Cross Your Mind?”. Both vocals are soulful and heartfelt. Raitt chips in with a nimble slide guitar run. Their harmony has innate chemistry. Charles (as on many of the cuts) plays keyboards. Bonnie Raitt has always honored the great blues and rhythm performers that paved the way for modern artists. Changing pace, singer Natalie Cole energizes the album with a finger-snapping, sexy take on Little Willie John’s unforgettable “Fever”. There are band punctuations and Ray’s fluidity is countered by Cole’s saucy intonation. In a meeting of two icons, “Sinner’s Blues” is wonderful. B.B. King on guitar, and Ray Charles on piano is uplifting and they trade vocals with flair. Charles reaches back and plays some great blues (including a rhythmic solo). King’s signature guitar riffs are as good as ever and Preston joins on Hammond B-3.

Gladys Knight helps out “Brother Ray” on the funky, orchestral “Heaven Help Us All”. On this number, the layered, swelling musical texture works. But there are tracks that are overproduced. The Willie Nelson duet, “It Was A Very Good Year” feels overwrought and too Sinatra-esque. Between Charles and Nelson, there must have been many tunes that would have showcased these two legends in a more representative (and possibly enjoyable) light. The pairing with James Taylor on “Sweet Potato Pie” is more effective in this regard. “Over The Rainbow” with Johnny Mathis also seems overwhelmed by the potent arrangement. On a live version of “Crazy Love”, Van Morrison and Ray Charles are bolstered by the enhanced arrangement. This dynamic also succeeds on one of the bonus tracks, “Mary Ann”. Backed by an all-star ensemble with percussionist Poncho Sanchez, the jam explodes with Latin fury. It is a welcome “extra”.

Genius Loves Company is a reminder that Ray Charles was the most influential musician in the second half of the Twentieth Century. This CD has excellent, polished acoustics. Included is a video documentary on the making of this album. One of the highlights is a stripped-down solo performance by Charles at the conclusion.

TrackList: Here We Go Again; Sweet Potato Pie; You Don’t Know Me; Sorry Seems To Be The Saddest Word; Fever; Do I Ever Cross Your Mind; It Was A Very Good Year; Hey Girl; Sinner’s Prayer; Heaven Help Us All; Over The Rainbow; Crazy Love; Bonus Tracks: Unchain My Heart (Take 6); Mary Ann

–Robbie Gerson