1959, Music

The Genius of Ray Charles (1959)

I genuinely love musical left turns, they are among my favourite experiences when handled well, especially when I’m around to experience them. (Obviously I was not around for this one.) But I am much more ambivalent about musical left turns towards the mainstream – it’s a lot harder to get excited by a drastic change in style when that change of style is not a commercial risk.

This record is regarded by many recent critics as a classic and it’s easy to see why: Charles is in fine form and this is pretty drastic departure from his earlier sound. But it’s worth noting critics at the time were less kind and so was the general public. The reason being that it sounded to some like a betrayal of Charles’ roots. And that’s also understandable because, aside from Charles’ voice, it sounds like his music is being whitewashed despite the presence of prominent black musicians and an up-and-coming black arranger. That’s because the arrangements sound more like jazz pop than jazz, and jazz pop could be shorthand for “a white person’s idea of what jazz sounds like”. (Clearly this was not the intention of Charles, Quincy Jones, or Fathead Newman or the other performers.)

Frankly, it’s hard to know what to do with it. Though it doesn’t seem brave in retrospect, it certainly was given the chilly reaction. It’s not as brave as Charles’ decision to start covering country a few years later, and it’s less successful than those records too, but it’s still an album by an artist playing by his own rules (and using his commercial success to do what he wants). And it’s well made. And I want to respect that.

On the other hand, I like Ray Charles the soul performer and Ray Charles the innovator and beyond the sound of voice, I’m not sure how much of that we get here. I think it’s yet another record where I discover that I just don’t like Quincy Jones, as an arranger in this case. Because these arrangements don’t work for me as much as the more recent critics seem to think they do.

7/10 I guess, though maybe that’s too kind

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