The movies and TV you need to watch, the music you need to hear, the books and comics you need to read, the games you need to play — The Playboy Library is an ongoing series that offers the 21st century man the pop ammunition to carry himself as a gentleman of culture. Never obvious, always essential.
Usually, when an established artist ventures into a new genre the attempt is met with eye rolls and moans. Remember when Rod Stewart rasped through the American songbook, Bon Jovi went country or, yes, Pat Boone launched an ill-fated foray into heavy metal? The endeavor rarely rings true because the artist is all too often confusing admiration for understanding. Ray Charles understands. He understands soul. He understands blues. He understands country. And on this classic 1961 release Ray demonstrates he clearly knows jazz.
In fact, Ray Charles was so adept at genre-hopping that Genius often gets lost in the cracks between his legendary soul albums and his biggest cross-over breakthrough, 1962’s Modern Sounds in Country & Western Music, but this overlooked gem reveals perhaps the penultimate moment of Charles the jazz performer.
The day after Christmas, 1960, Ray entered Rudy Van Gelder’s famous Englewood Cliffs, NJ studio with the Justice League of jazz sidemen. At this point in his career — almost a dozen albums in and after his colossal “What’d I Say” earned him his first gold record — he all he had to do was say, “Ay, oh” and the best musicians in the world would come running. Naturally, he cherry picked the world famous Count Basie band: Thad Jones and Joe Newman on trumpet, Billy Mitchell and Frank Wess on sax, Freddie Green on guitar and the venerable Sonny Payne on drums amongst others. Trading his customary piano for a Hammond B-3 organ, Ray leads this super group through heart-pounding big band arrangements of both his own compositions and well-chosen covers by the likes of the Gershwin Bros. and more.
The Basie band would not be his only secret weapon: Charles also enlisted wunderkind Quincy Jones and the veteran Ralph Burns as arrangers and Mingus and Coltrane’s producer Creed Taylor to produce a truly landmark album. With the big band era on its deathbed, Ray and Co. breathed new life into an art form that was creatively and commercially stagnant.
The album kicks off with the brass sections stabs of “From the Heart” and doesn’t let up until they serenade us off into the sunset with “New York’s My Home.” The eleven tracks in between sway between swinging jazz instrumentals and soul infused jazz vocal tracks.
As he would continue to do with country, pop and rock, Charles puts a large contingent of the jazz community to shame laying down Hammond organ licks to send even the most seasoned player back to the woodshed. But he never oversteps, blending seamlessly with the brass on such tunes as “Birth Of The Blues,” “Strike Up The Band,” and “Stompin’ Room Only.”
If you have ears, you are familiar with “One Mint Julip.” Here, Charles turns in a scorching instrumental version that has since become so definitive, most people don’t remember it actually has words. This #1 R&B single is worth the price of the album alone although he doesn’t turn in a more deft touch on the organ than on Bobby Timmon’s “Moanin’.”
If your knowledge of this musical legend is limited to the Jamie Fox biopic than you are truly doing yourself a disservice. You oughta own more than one Ray Charles album — just make sure this is the first.
Adam Freeman is the former producer of MTV’s 120 Minutes, Alternative Nation, and Total Request Live. He is now the Creative Director of Thinkfactory Media and the executive producer of 4th & Loud, which airs Tuesdays at 10pm on AMC. He tweets at @mradamfreeman.