By Michael Katz
When you consider the arc of Ray Charles’ career – jazz, blues, R&B, country, it’s no surprise that it took a village Wednesday night at the Hollywood Bowl to pay tribute to him. There was an all-star jazz band, in addition to the Count Basie Band, strings, a choir, headliners from all the touchstones of Charles’ music, plus a loaded version of the Raelettes (Patti Austin!), all tied up in a ribbon by Tavis Smiley. If it only occasionally matched the searing genius of Brother Ray Himself, it did keep everyone on their toes.
Ray Charles’ voice was unmistakable – not just for the raw soulfulness mixed with lyric grace, but for the pain that was never far from the surface. There is a certain courageousness in that for a male singer, and it’s not surprising that the women on the program seemed to channel Charles’ spirit most effectively, with Dee Dee Bridgewater and Ms. Austin exhibits A and 1A. More on that later.
The first half of he show was anchored by an all-star band led by drummer and musical director Gregg Field. The front line featured Terence Blanchard and Scotty Barnhart (Barnhart also led the trumpet section of the Basie band), with Dave Koz on alto sax, Houston Person on tenor and Tom Scott on baritone. George Duke sparkled throughout the concert on piano and electric keyboards, with Shelly Berg’s Hammond B-3 percolating underneath it all.
R&B singer BeBe Winans was the opening vocalist, smoothly working through “I Got A Woman” and a more expressive “Drown In My Own Tears.” Perhaps that is damning with faint praise, but the raw power of Ray Charles was lurking in the background, and anything short of that can’t help but be noticed. The band had “Them That Got” to themselves, featuring Dave Koz on alto and Tom Scott picking up his soprano. Koz is a star on the smooth jazz scene and dominated the sax solos during the show — this inevitably left less room for Houston Person, which was regrettable. That big tenor sound, exemplified by the late David “Fathead” Newman, whose name never came up during the evening, was a major part of the Charles sound.
And then came Dee Dee Bridgewater. Head shaven, clad in a stunning gold dress, she took over the show from the first note. She started with “Hallelujah I Love Him So,” backed up by Houston Person in his one soulful excursion of the night. She followed with “I Believe In My Soul” and the rousing “I Got News For You,” which brought Blanchard out front on trumpet and Duke alternating from keyboards to piano. Dee Dee Bridgewater simply has it all – the booming voice in perfect pitch, the sassiness in her presentation, the hurt and tenderness when she needed to reach back for it. All of it flows naturally, not a note forced. Thankfully she wasn’t done for the night.
The next section of the show featured Ray Charles’ foray into Country and Western music. It started with a standout version of the Raelettes, with Patti Austin and Siedah Garrett. Garrett led Charles’ smoldering version of “You Are My Sunshine,” then Patti Austin took center stage. Austin is just too much of a presence to keep in the background. Her intro to “Come Rain or Come Shine” seemed effortless, but before you knew it she had you in her grasp – her version of the ballad stood right there with Ray Charles’s.
Country music singer Martina McBride closed the first half of the program. If you are mainly a jazz or R&B fan with a tangential knowledge of country, McBride’s voice fits in solidly with the post-Loretta Lynn/Patsy Cline tradition. Producers Gregg Field and the legendary Phil Ramone were smart to give her a variety of settings, instead of just covering Charles’ C&W oeuvre. “Bye Bye Love” had the Raelettes behind her, then a combination of strings and the Fred Martin/Levite Camp of Urban Entertainment Institute choir filled up the stage for “You Don’t Know Me” and “Take These Chains.” Finally, trumpet virtuoso Arturo Sandoval came onstage and joined McBride for the Hank Williams standard “Hey, Good Lookin’.” Cuban Country Soul…you just don’t get that everywhere.
The second half of the show was anchored by the Count Basie Big Band, featuring the aforementioned Barnhart on trumpet and Reggie Thomas on piano. The main vocalist for much of the set was Kenny “Babyface” Edmonds. He’s an appealing singer, his voice pitched a little higher than Winans, but he just doesn’t have the visceral appeal to carry this music. “Let The Good Times Roll” was a good vehicle to start his segment. There were Charles standards to follow like “I Can’t Stop Loving You” and “Crying Time,” which featured Monica Mancini stepping out in front of the Raelettes.
But the real fireworks came as the program concluded. There was BeBe Winans reaching back for a little extra on “How Long Has This Been Going On?” Then Dee Dee Bridgewater came back out and tore the place up again with “Busted.” Before the final numbers, the video screens flashed a clip of Ray Charles as a guest on Saturday Night Live, Year 2, with Murray, Belushi, Gildna Radner et al playing a cover group, “The Young Caucasians.” It was at once hilarious and a reminder of how far Ray Charles’ music had brought us. It set the stage for “Georgia On My Mind,” which brought back Babyface as well as Patti Austin and the Raelettes, and then the whole production returned for “America The Beautiful.”
Despite the effort to sprinkle the program with all sorts of pop stars, the attendance was only around 10,000. Which makes me wonder, since it is supposed to be a jazz series, why not just give the microphone to Dee Dee Bridgewater, Houston Person, Patti Austin et al and let them try and fill the place up instead of relying on retro themes? I don’t think Ray Charles would have objected.
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