Looking Back at a Genius

Live in Concert (Concord)

Live in France 1961 (Eagle Vision)

Ray Charles

Martin Z. Kasdan Jr.

What a gift Ray Charles had! Almost single-handedly, he reshaped music in the 1950s and 1960s by combining elements of jazz, blues, gospel and rock 'n' roll. These two new releases represent "The Genius" at his prime.

I must admit that I cannot be entirely objective about Live in Concert. The vinyl album was one of the very first records I ever purchased, and it was my introduction to the saxophone work of David "Fathead" Newman and, oddly, to Beethoven's "Für Elise" (the introduction to "I Got a Woman").

This concert, recorded in Los Angeles in 1964, features Charles with a big band, and showcases hits such as "Hide Nor Hair," "Hallelujah, I Love Her So," "Busted," "Don't Set Me Free," and "What'd I Say." The record has been expanded for CD with the addition of seven previously unreleased songs, including a drop-dead gorgeous version of "Georgia On My Mind," with flute credited to Bill Pearson.

Charles' blues roots come to the fore with his version of "In the Evening (When the Sun Goes Down)." As a kid, I bought this because it seemed at the time to offer a "greatest hits plus" package. The expanded and re-mastered version not only takes me back to my joy of hearing this album back in 1965, but also opens up new adventures with the "new" cuts, and with production and engineering that seem to put Ray Charles right in my living room.

Live in France 1961 was recorded at the Antibes Jazz Festival, and is released for the first time after being discovered in the vaults of a French archive. The octet includes both Fathead and Hank Crawford, and Newman's flute work on two versions of "Georgia" is exquisite. Jazz is prominent in such songs as Horace Silver's "Doodlin'" and "Hornful Soul."

Pounding versions of hits like "Sticks and Stones," "Hallelujah, I Love Her So" and "What'd I Say" are here, as well. Ray Charles and company dig deep into the blues with "I Believe to my Soul." "Tell the Truth" is commanding in its presence.

Most of the 105 minutes is taken from sets on July 18 and 22, with some additional tracks shot July 19 and 21. The sound quality is excellent for the time, and it's a delight to watch Ray Charles interact with his band, and to see the overwhelming response from the audience. The producers at Reelin' in the Years Productions have done another excellent job, adding to their successes with, among others, the Muddy Waters DVD and the Jazz Icons Series.

Find out more at concordmusicgroup.com and eagle-rock.com.