Thursday, May 11, 2006

A genius says good-bye...with a little help from his friends

There's a moment early on in "Genius Loves Company" that captures the greatness of the late Ray Charles.

In the opening line of his and Elton John's duet of John's "Sorry Seems to be the Hardest Word," Charles sings the first line, "What've I gotta do to make you love me?" Then he adds a simple "Huh?"

The heartache, indeed the desperate yearning, captured in that one syllabic moment hangs in the air like an about-to-burst storm cloud. You'll accuse of me of hyperbole here, but it takes a genius to be able to express such emotion with so little.

Although at this point I don't think there's much of an argument about the genius. Because that's what Ray Charles was. He conquered every genre, revolutionized pop music in fact, all on the strength of his talent.

His final studio work, finally made available this year for iPod download, is one of those albums you'd take with you to the moon -- just in case something happened and you didn't make it back to earth.

There are few misses. From the first delicious note Norah Jones hits on "Here We Go Again," to the impeccable final chords on the Charles/Van Morrison cover of "Crazy Love," this is as close to perfection as one can get.

And if Charles sounds tired at times, it's understandable, given his declining health. He still has fun, though, playing off Jones and Morrison rather well. He also has his way with James Taylor on "Sweet Potato Pie," and makes magic with Bonnie Raitt on "Do I Ever Cross Your Mind" and with Michael McDonald on "Hey Girl."

Old friend Willie Nelson shows up to cover Sinatra's "It Was A Very Good Year" with him. And even though they pull it off, you're left a bit disappointed, if only because this recording just doesn't measure up to the benchmark set by "Seven Spanish Angels." But, then again, what does?

The only other flat notes are the duets with Diana Krall on "You Don't Know Me" and Natalie Cole on "Fever." Not so much for what Charles does or doesn't do, but because Krall and Cole don't bring much to the table.

They saved the best for last, though. "Crazy Love" is one of those near religious musical experiences. Taken from a live performance, Charles and Morrison go back and forth, complete with soul-filled back up singers, letting the song build toward a Gospel-like crescendo finish. It's a moment.

If you claim to be an American pop music connoisseur and don't add "Genius Loves Company" to your collection, you're nothing but a fraud. This album, friends, is pure genius. (And a little company, too...)

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