Ray Charles: Genius + Soul = Jazz

Hollywood Bowl


Better than… hanging out at the Ray Charles Post Office on Washington Boulevard.

Last night, a parade of marquee-ready names hit the stage of the Hollywood Bowl in tribute to the “Genius of Soul,” Ray Charles. Featuring Babyface, Martina McBride and Dave Koz, the show sought to appeal to a wide swath of ticket buyers and succeeded admirably. But what do they have to do with the essence of Brother Ray?

There has been a lot of debate around town about how to make the jazz bookings hip at the Hollywood Bowl. But how does one go about selling 18,000 tickets to a jazz show? Many America jazz clubs would be happy to have 18,000 people pass through their door in a year. Or five.

Chris Barton at the LA Times opined last year: “If jazz is to remain a presence on the city's premier stage, it needs to be seen from all angles at its still expanding, still evolving best.”

This was not one of those expanding shows. In fact, the calendar doesn't look to have any of those this season. Still, I'm willing to wait and see.

Brother Ray is one of the great music autobiographies. Charles' unapologetic nature about his career, his lovers and particularly his heroin addiction was refreshing, considering many in my generation just knew him as the old blind guy who sang “America the Beautiful” or “Georgia” whenever someone had the right budget for a Fourth of July spectacular.

This show, hosted by Tavis Smiley, focused on three early stages of Charles' career: his Atlantic Records soul/jazz sides, his approach to the country radio hits of his childhood and the rollicking big band sound that many people associate with him today. It also happened to be a period of unbridled creativity that was the peak of his extensive drug abuse.

With a small supporting ensemble that included a striding George Duke on keyboards, the great Houston Person on saxophone and Terence Blanchard playing a blood vessel-popping trumpet, Bebe Winans offered up his sleepy gospel on “I Got A Woman” and “Drown In My Own Tears” before making way for a sparkly Dee Dee Bridgewater who breathed a soulful life into the proceedings with an passionate “Hallelujah” and “I Believe to My Soul.”

“How bout the dress?” said a stunned Blanchard as Bridgewater left the stage. He was killing time as the honorary Count Basie orchestra took to the stage.

They offered a clean and swinging take on “I Can't Stop Loving You” before backing the night's version of the Raelettes that included the audience-adored Patti Austin and Siedah Garrett. Austin's sobering rendition of “Come Rain or Come Shine” was a highlight of the evening despite the syrupy strings.

Martina McBride, following a rather challenging collection of background vocalists, handled the country & western portion straight down the middle with literal readings of “You Don't Know Me” and “Take These Chains.” Following the Raelettes was no easy task and she handled it well, despite the string section being drowned out by the Basie horn section. Trumpeter Arturo Sandoval even made a roughly sixteen bar ear-popping cameo during “Hey Good Lookin'” before disappearing backstage.

Following the intermission Babyface, a man who can still reasonably call himself that at the age of 54, was backed by a big band conglomeration of the earlier ensembles. His soul by way of neo-soul approach was precise but his wasn't really the ideal voice to encompass Charles' weathered croak. He made a joke about his white neighbors in Indianapolis and their acceptance of Charles.

The airing of a classic Saturday Night Live sketch followed, driving home the point: In the bit Charles is introduced to the Young Caucasian Singers (Belushi, Akroyd, Murray, Curtin, Newman, Radner) who go on to butcher his “What I'd Say” in the most soul-less way possible.

To their credit, all of the soloists brought their repressed energies to a version of “What I'd Say” and then, despite earlier claims from Smiley that no one could beat Charles' version, performed “America, the Beautiful,” drawing it out with their melismatic reverie, aided by every house light illuminating the dispersing crowd.

Personal Bias: There may be nothing better in the world than Ray Charles' performance of “Ring of Fire” on the Johnny Cash show.

The Crowd: Babyface fans, surprised Patti Austin fans and a few people who brought flowers as part of their picnic.

Random Notebook Dump: Considering the intimacy of the seating, people should probably consult their neighbors before purchasing garlic fries.

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