Ray Charles Orchestra: Zurich 1961

Ray-Charles-Orchestra-Zurich

Ray Charleston Orchestra: Zurich 1961

By 1961, Ray Charles’ genre-blurring panache—his synthesizing of R&B, blues, jazz, pop, gospel and country—was nearing its crescendo. There were and are few, if any, more dexterous or dynamic performers, Charles literally growling to bust musical barriers. And it is all here—loose, raw, exhilarating—across this previously unreleased Zurich date’s 80 minutes.

In the liner notes, Quincy Jones cites Charles’ outfit as “the last of the big bands,” ranking it right behind Ellington and Basie. And, yes, wading into the 17-track program, first impressions are of a killer big-band session, leading off with Jones’ sizzling charts for Sonny Stitt’s “Happy Faces” and Benny Golson’s “Along Came Betty.” (Golson is provided plenty of attention, as Q’s equally dazzling arrangements of “I Remember Clifford” and “Ray Minor Ray” are included later in the set.)

But the orchestra’s big, brassy sound—four trumpets, three trombones and five saxophones, David “Fathead” Newman and bandleader Hank Crawford among them—is just one ingredient of this rich gumbo. The four Raelettes take center stage for a rafter-rattling “My Baby.” Charles cuts loose on “Sticks and Stones,” and slows for a remarkable “Georgia on My Mind,” propelled by Newman’s flute. He also struts through “Hit the Road Jack,” stretches “Come Rain or Come Shine” to seven and a half minutes of soulful brilliance, and reteams with the Raelettes for a gritty, slithery “I Believe to My Soul” and an ache-drenched “I Wonder.” Genius indeed.