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Ray Charles: Live at Montreux, 1997

By 1997, Ray Charles had already been at it for half a century, and reports of lackluster performances and erratic onstage behavior were not uncommon-audiences might catch a dud or be reminded of just why he was called the Genius. Fortunately for the Swiss, when Charles played the Montreux Jazz Festival that year, the last of his three bookings at the annual event, there were no displays of anything but his brilliance.

In an hour-long set that encompasses both his most popular hits and a handful of less familiar material, Charles, his 15-piece band and, toward the end of the show, the Raelettes, offer few real surprises-Charles was long past innovation by this stage of his career, content to play and sway at his electronic keyboard. But he isn’t going through the motions. Although Charles had undoubtedly performed “Busted,” “What’d I Say,” “Georgia on My Mind” and “I Can’t Stop Loving You” thousands of times, if they bored him the professional in him never lets on. The wide, omnipresent grin seems entirely genuine as he runs through them one more time, and the performances, if not cutting edge, never drag.

Nonetheless, some of the more inspired moments occur when Charles reaches outside of the basic catalog. A cover of Leon Russell’s “Song for You” is imbued with sweet soul, and “Mississippi Mud,” which Charles cut originally in 1960, provides a direct link to his blues roots. “Just For a Thrill,” also dating from that year, and Oscar Peterson’s “Blues for Big Scotia” are other standouts.

The DVD offers superb sound and crisp visuals, but it’s a no-frills affair. An earlier release of this same concert by another company augmented the program with commentary from Charles. Not that it’s really necessary; we can see and hear for ourselves that this was one of the good ones.

Originally Published