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For the standards, new life

October 22, 2006|Don Heckman | Special to The Times

Ray Charles and

the Count Basie Orchestra

"Ray Sings, Basie Swings" (Concord)

* *

WHAT'S a record company to do when it lands the biggest hit album in its history, the bestselling album in the artist's career -- and the artist has died? That was the dilemma facing Concord Records after the remarkable success of "Genius Loves Company." Released shortly after Ray Charles' death in 2004, and coinciding with the release of the Oscar-winning biopic "Ray," the album won nine Grammys.

The solution surfaced as material for "Ray Sings, Basie Swings" turned up in a pile of 1970s concert tapes that "Genius Loves Company" producer John Burk found in Concord's Berkeley vaults. The tapes chronicled a 1973 performance by Charles and his own band on a program they shared with the Basie aggregation. There was no joint appearance, but the high quality of Charles' singing and the general murkiness of his musical backing raised the idea of stripping the vocals from the tapes and adding newly recorded accompaniment.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday October 29, 2006 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 0 inches; 29 words Type of Material: Correction
'Genius' Grammys: A review of "Ray Sings/Basie Swings" in the Oct. 22 Calendar section said Ray Charles' 2004 album "Genius Loves Company" won nine Grammy Awards. It won eight.

So Burk decided to use the modern-day Basie orchestra, one of several so-called "ghost bands" continuing to preserve the big band sounds of the swing era long after their leaders have gone (Basie died in 1984).

The results represent both a technical achievement and a scary vision of future recording possibilities.

On the upside, the blend between Charles' voice tracks and the orchestra is seamless. The selections include such familiar songs as "Let the Good Times Roll," "Busted," "Crying Time" and "Georgia on My Mind," with Charles sounding superb (the recordings, after all, are from a time when he was in peak form). The Basie band, using arrangements by Roger Neumann, Quincy Jones, John Clayton, Shelly Berg, Tom Scott and others, comes across with solid, well-played, briskly swinging big-band music. But its connection with the classic Basie sound and rhythmic drive is more inferential than representative.

What's missing is any real sense of what happens when artists of the caliber of Charles and Basie play together. And the occasional manufactured spots during which Charles shouts encouragement to the band simply underscore the artificiality of this production given the knowledge that it's not Basie's band he was shouting at.

And so the downside is that the use of technology in projects of this sort opens the door to a potentially endless array of exploitative, postmortem combinations. And the exploitation is further enhanced by the use of titles such as "Ray Sings, Basie Swings," even though Basie is nowhere to be heard.

Here are a few other recent standards-oriented pop albums produced, packaged and aimed at the same young-adult-to-boomer market niche that Concord hopes to reach with "Ray Sings, Basie Swings."


Tony Bennett

"Duets: An American Classic" (RPM/Columbia Records)

* * *

THE duet format is quickly becoming worn out. But leave it to 80-year-old Bennett to bring some juice to the concept. Start with the size of this package -- 18 duets plus a solo reading of (once again) "I Left My Heart in San Francisco." Add to that an extraordinary lineup of partners -- Barbra Streisand, James Taylor, Paul McCartney, Tim McGraw, Stevie Wonder, k.d. lang, Sting, Bono, Michael Buble, Billy Joel, the Dixie Chicks, Celine Dion and more. Top it off with the fact that the tunes were recorded by performers who are actually in the studio with each other.

The quality level, understandably, is all over the place. Streisand and Bennett on "Smile" are sheer magic. "The Best Is Yet to Come," with Diana Krall, is the album's sole encounter between jazz masters. "Because of You" with lang and "For Once in My Life" with Wonder are absolute winners.

"The Very Thought of You" (with McCartney), "Put on a Happy Face" (Taylor) and "Rags to Riches" (Elton John) -- despite the heavyweight names -- are disappointments. But even the less-appealing tracks are brightened by Bennett's presence, by his musical generosity and his capacity to bring life to everything he touches.


Michael Bolton

"Bolton Swings Sinatra:

The Second Time Around" (Concord)


"SWING" is not a word that should be used in the same sentence with "Michael Bolton." Despite the presence of a roomful of L.A.'s A-list studio musicians, playing Nelson Riddle and Billy May-styled arrangements by Chris Walden, Bolton doesn't quite achieve the relatively low benchmark set by Rod Stewart's excursions into similar American standards territory.

Tunes such as "You Go to My Head," "Fly Me to the Moon," "I've Got You Under My Skin" and "Night and Day" fall prey to Bolton's monochromatic sound, stiff phrasing and occasional over-the-top melodrama.

Bolton has a pop niche that works well for him, but this isn't it. What's next: "David Clayton-Thomas Rocks Bing Crosby?"


Natalie Cole

"Leavin' " (Verve)

* * 1/2

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