- The Washington Times - Monday, August 30, 2004

Ray Charles

Genius Loves Company

Concord Records

The title of Ray Charles’ posthumous final album is clever but kind of inaccurate: Geniuses are more often than not solitary in nature.

But Mr. Charles — a musical genius if ever there was one — was an exception. As this set of soul, gospel and R&B; duets indicates, he loved the company of other singers. (His good friend, the keyboardist Billy Preston, turns up, too.)

For the most part, they complement the great man well here.

What’s most generous about “Genius Loves Company,” which was completed in March, is how Mr. Charles put the essential character of what he must have known could be his last studio effort on loan to the guest stars.

The Norah Jones duet (“Here We Go Again”) sounds like a Norah Jones song. Ditto the James Taylor (“Sweet Potato Pie”) and B.B. King cuts (“Sinner’s Prayer”) — they take on the idiosyncrasies of Mr. Taylor and Mr. King.

Nothing wrong with this, of course, especially in the case of Mr. Taylor, who wrote “Potato.” But if you’re anything like me, you’ll be drawn to the artists to whom you’re predisposed. The sound of Michael McDonald’s voice has always made me want to tear off my fingernails, so I didn’t much care for the namby-pamby rendition of “Hey Girl.”

Willie Nelson is misused on the vaingloriously orchestrated “It Was a Very Good Year.” And hearing Johnny Mathis and Mr. Charles do the quadrillionth version of “Over the Rainbow” is less than inspiring, too.

Oh, I’m sniping. The imperishable thread of Mr. Charles himself — the plaintive voice and the tell-tale piano progressions — links all this uneven material to make a heartfelt, startlingly honest final statement.

I say startlingly honest because producers John Burk and Phil Ramone left some mistakes on here. Mr. Charles’ voice wavers with age and infirmity in places — most achingly on “Sorry Seems to be the Hardest Word,” a duet with Elton John — but these are moments of genuineness, where perfection isn’t the enemy of the organically good.

In that spirit, I loved Mr. Charles’ impromptu cackle at the end of the slinky “Fever,” on which he’s joined by Natalie Cole. And I loved the in-concert version of “Crazy Love.” Mr. Charles takes the first verse, and when Van Morrison follows, you notice a blueprint is being traced — and always has been.

Another thing that makes “Genius” genius is its low-key showing off of the astonishing breadth of Mr. Charles’ repertoire. The guy could shift between blues (“Sinner’s Prayer”), country/western (“Do I Ever Cross Your Mind?,” a Bonnie Raitt tandem) and traditional pop (“You Don’t Know Me,” with Diana Krall) and not grind a single gear.

The social-conscience gospel of “Heaven Help Us All,” sung with Gladys Knight, is still as relevant today as when Stevie Wonder recorded it in 1969. (“Heaven help the boy who won’t be 21/Heaven help the man who gave that boy a gun.”)

It’s heartening to hear a 73-year-old legend pushing himself just months before his death, and being seen to the gates by some top-notch friends.

Strictly speaking, the album isn’t the best of Mr. Charles career, but this string of duets was meant as a participatory tribute to a living legend.

It’s a fitting one.

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