Charles, Basie big band play posthumous gig


Producer Gregg Field says that creating the new Ray Charles album "Ray Sings, Basie Swings," due Oct. 3 from Concord Records and Starbucks Hear Music, was "like painting the Sistine Chapel with a Q-tip."

As technically seamless as it is swinging and soulful, this astonishing record mates concert vocals by the late R and B titan Charles, who died in June 2004, with newly recorded studio performances by the Count Basie Orchestra. (Basie died in 1984, but his famed big band continues to tour and record, directed by Bill Hughes.)

Charles and Basie never recorded together, but they often shared stages. A tape reel labeled "Ray/Basie" unearthed in the Concord/Fantasy vaults in Berkeley, Calif. -- which house the tapes of Pablo Records, where Basie recorded in the '70s -- originally was thought to be the product of a collaborative show, but it proved to be a live shot from an unknown date in the mid-'70s by Charles and his working band, with a separate Basie set.

The discovery fired the idea to build a posthumous partnership between the late singer and Basie's group.

"(Charles') performances were more compelling," Field says. "It's much more deep-rooted. ... We were able to bring back a moment in Ray Charles' life when he was at the peak of his singing powers."

While the singing was strong on the tapes, the band and Charles' comping and soloing were dim. So, in a reversal of the normal recording process, new arrangements (painstakingly synched to the singer's off-meter delivery) were forged for the Basie group, while pianists Shelly Berg and Jim Cox replicated Charles' original keyboard work.

The finished product features powerful Charles vocals on such standards from his book as "Let the Good Times Roll," "Georgia On My Mind" and "I Can't Stop Loving You" over soaring Basie charts. "You've got the intensity of Ray, and a pristine recording of Count Basie's band," the producer says.

For Concord and Starbucks, "Ray Sings, Basie Swings" reprises their multi-Grammy-winning collaboration on "Genius Loves Company," which was released shortly after Charles' death, just before the release of Taylor Hackford's biographical feature "Ray." The duets collection has sold about 3.2 million to date.

Concord general manager Gene Rumsey notes that an appetite for the man's music has persisted in the two years since his death: About 60 new Charles albums have appeared since the release of "Genius." He says, "A deep awareness (of Charles) was created."

Rumsey says a label market research study indicated that "of his core fan base, 52% said they'd probably be inclined to buy (the new album). After hearing it, 100% said they'd be inclined to buy it."

So, in conjunction with its coffee-marketing partner, Concord plans to get "Ray Sings, Basie Swings" into as many sets of ears as possible. "We're going to try to come up with a marketing campaign where those 40 million customers who shop at Starbucks will be able to hear this album."

Starbucks Entertainment president Ken Lombard says the company's campaign will include extensive in-store signage, point-of-purchase displays, and play both in-store and on Starbucks' XM Satellite Radio channel.

For Field, the project serves as the answer to a longtime question. "I worked for both these guys in my 20s," he says, "and more than once I thought, I wonder why these guys never worked together."

Listeners will wonder that no longer, and wonder at an album that's more than a bit of a musical marvel.