Genius Loves Company
Concord Records, 2004
REVIEW BY: Jason Warburg
ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED: 08/31/2004
On Thursday, June 10 this year, I received an e-mail from a colleague asking me if I would be joining in the national day of mourning the following day. My reply: "Absolutely. Ray Charles was THE MAN." (I think she meant some other guy, but whatever.)
Genius Loves Company is the last album recorded by one of the last century's most remarkable and important musical artists. Nobody connected the musical dots between gospel, blues, r&b, jazz, pop and even country with more passion, flair and yes, soul, than Ray Charles. He was a genre-spanning marvel, a superb piano player, and one of the most genuinely soulful artists ever to grace the stage at a presidential inauguration.
He was also one of those artists that anybody who knew anything about music would work with in the blink of an eye. I imagine it took roughly 1.5 phone calls apiece to book the 12 artists who duet with Ray on this grand finale -- a few folks you may have heard of like BB King, Van Morrison, Norah Jones, Elton John, Bonnie Raitt, Diana Krall, Michael McDonald, Johnny Mathis and the list goes on.
For a man not long from dying, Charles sounds vividly alive throughout this disc. He matches Jones note for note on their jazzy, slinky pas de deux "Here We Go Again," playfully trades vocals with James Taylor on JT's lost r&b classic "Sweet Potato Pie," and gets downright giddy dueting with Natalie Cole on one of the disc's highlights, the steamy "Fever." Bonnie Raitt's contribution illustrates how both artists managed to mine the fertile ground between country and rhythm & blues.
The emotional high point of the album, though, has to be the gospel-blues summit convened by Charles and BB King on "Sinner's Prayer." First BB and then Ray pleads "Lord, please have mercy on me," and you can't help thinking about the context for both of these hard-living, long-lived legends. The interplay between Charles' piano and King's guitar is everything you could hope for, and their well-worn voices have more soul than a choir full of preachers. The sequencing is great, too, as this track segues right into a powerful gospel duet with Gladys Knight ("Heaven Help Us All").
I'd love to tell you this album is perfect, but that would only be almost true. I could complain about Willie Nelson's quote-unquote singing, but that would be pointless; you like him or you don't (guess where I fall on that one…). No, my real gripe is with the inclusion of Elton John. Yes, Elton is a talented guy, and "Sorry Seems To Be The Hardest Word" is one of his more thoughtful songs, but really, the only thing these two artists have in common is 88 keys. Everything Ray ever did started from the blues, and Elton is pop all the way. Elton is a showman; Ray is a soul man. As much as I wanted it to, this track just didn't work for me.
These small blemishes aside, Genius Loves Company is an album full of wonderful moments, a kaleidoscopic overview of the many genres Ray Charles left his mark on, in which he's joined by an all-star cast of guests who sound overjoyed just to have been asked. As they should be. Bon voyage, Ray.