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Jazz Review

Ray Charles Offers Timeless Set at Bowl

September 04, 1998|DON HECKMAN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Ray Charles' appearance at the Hollywood Bowl Wednesday night afforded an unusual opportunity to experience the Genius of Soul's instrumental expertise as a jazz artist while enjoying his always compelling, soul-drenched vocals.

Seated stage center before a grand piano and an electronic keyboard, surrounded by a 45-piece orchestra, the slender, animated Charles was generous with solos, almost as focused on his playing as he was on his singing. He was particularly effective with the electronic instrument, improvising several solos that dipped through bebop and the blues, using the keyboard's tone-bending facility to rip off artful melodies easily comparable to the roving, stirring intensity of his vocal work. At one point, Charles even picked up his alto saxophone, playing a chorus of intense, if a bit rusty, jazz riffs, reminding his listeners of the first-rate saxophone excursions from his early albums on Atlantic Records.

The heart of any Charles performance, however, is his singing--a richly emotional expression that has served as one of the foundation styles of popular music since the '50s. At 67, he has lost nothing from the collection of cries, whispers, moaned melodies and passionate utterances that are the essential elements of his style.

His knack for employing those elements to bring life and illumination to even the most trivial material was ever-present in a program that included some less-than-scintillating selections. But, like jazz artists Louis Armstrong and Fats Waller, Charles made the most of everything he touched. And when the material had implicit potential, as with his classic rendering of "Georgia" and "I Can't Stop Loving You," as well as such pop-oriented hits as Lennon & McCartney's "Eleanor Rigby" and "Yesterday" and Leon Russell's "A Song for You," he found the heart of each.

If there was a flaw with the presentation, it was its failure to include such Charles evergreens as "Hit the Road, Jack," "I've Got a Woman," "Busted" and others, as well as its surprising brevity. Despite the generally unexplored sonic energies of his large instrumental ensemble, despite the rapturously enthusiastic reactions from the large crowd, Charles limited himself to a relatively short program. When he left the stage, the house lights came up, and no amount of applause could trigger an encore. It was a surprisingly abrupt ending to a program that, rewarding for what it offered, nonetheless could have provided so much more.

Singer Nnenna Freelon, opening the concert, offered a set of Sarah Vaughan-influenced vocals, working effectively with a solid, bop-tinged backup band.

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