Ray Charles – Live in France 1961 (2011)

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Ray Charles, by this point, had left Atlantic for ABC-Paramount and was well on his way to becoming one of the 20th century’s most important crossover artists — dabbling in everything from country to big band to adult contemporary music.

Make no mistake, though, Charles was still a musician of staggering talent in the straight-ahead jazz idiom — as lovingly underscored in these never-before-seen DVD performances from Eagle Vision filmed at the Antibes Jazz Festival in July of 1961.

Charles, appearing on a bill between July 18 and 22 that also featured Lambert Hendricks and Ross, Count Basie and Les McCann, is helped along by a swinging little eight-piece outfit that includes David “Fathead” Newman, who is prominently featured as a soloist; trumpeter Phillip Guilbeau; and alto man Hank Crawford.

Together, they display an almost offhanded affinity for the scorching swinger, first on Horace Silver’s “Doodlin,'” which appears on the July 18 date, then “The Story” by James Moody — recently included on Crawford’s solo debut for Atlantic and featured here on both the July 18 and July 19 performances. “One Mint Julep,” originally a hit R&B tune, is later given a thrilling Latin-tinged samba beat. And then there’s “Hornful Soul,” featuring (as did “Doodlin'”) this great chart by a young Quincy Jones. The July 22 show also includes “With You on My Mind,” a Nat “King” Cole composition that Ray Charles never recorded in the studio.

An artist with this roving creativity, Charles couldn’t stay in the jazz pocket for long, though — even at a jazz festival. Elsewhere, he displays a now-familiar command of everything from chicken-bucket blues to glossy Tin Pan Alley to gospel-steeped R&B. But even when the group settles into more conventionally recognizable fare, as on an intriguing new arrangement of “Georgia On My Mind,” it’s with an eye toward clever inventiveness. (Note David Newman’s smartly executed switch to flute for this track.) “Let the Good Times Roll,” in its first iteration on July 18, is given a boisterous big band makeover. By the time Ray Charles tears into a pew-rattling soul of “Tell the Truth” on July 22, he, his group and the juking Raelettes have worked themselves into a frenzy of manic testifying — unleashing a staggering 66 bars of call and response.

No one, then or now, could command such a broad palette of sound. Still, I kept coming back to the jazz stuff, as dexterously dapper and rhythmically complex as it could be.

Of course, Ray Charles had already made a legendary appearance at the 1958 Newport Jazz Festival, and recorded a number of jazz-oriented projects including 1960’s aptly titled Genius + Soul = Jazz, featuring the Count Basie Orchestra, minus Bill. But it’s been a number of years since we saw new evidence of Charles’ still-underrated creativity, unerring rhythmic ear and undeniable moxie as a jazz musician.

Anymore, that’s the least recognized element of his genius. This DVD serves as a swinging reminder.

Ray Charles’ Live in France 1961, issued last month by Eagle Vision, was made possible through the efforts of French TV director Jean-Christophe Averty, who documented hundreds of jazz performances in France from the late 1950s through the early 1990s. Notably, he used film — rather than videotape — ensuring that these priceless images wouldn’t be recorded over later. This historic 105-minute DVD was produced by Reelin’ In the Years, a group of talented archivists that includes David Peck, Tom Gullotta, Phil Galloway and Steve Scoville. Mastering, which in some cases involved bolstering the old film sound with radio recordings of the same concert, was done by Joe Palmaccio.

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