An absolute must for Ray Charles fans, Live in France 1961 is a newly unearthed concert DVD filmed at the Antibes Jazz Festival, July 18-22, 1961. Despite scratches, speckles, and other imperfections, the picture is remarkably sharp. The black-and-white footage captures Charles during his prime, with a focus on soulful R&B. The main program runs eighty-seven minutes, containing a nine song set from July 18th and a eleven tunes from July 20th. Bonus footage includes additional material from July 19th and 21st. Charles is backed by a seven piece band, accompanied on select numbers by The Raeletts.
Reelin’ In the Years Productions has gone to considerable lengths to restore this footage and present it seamlessly. As explained in detail in the DVD booklet, this footage was not filmed with the intention of broadcasting as a complete program. The purpose of the footage was to edit highlight reels covering the entire festival, featuring clips of each artist. These highlight programs were then broadcast on French television. The team behind this DVD compiled all the existing footage of Charles’ sets (unfortunately, much of it was lost), but found that in many cases the beginning and/or endings of certain songs were missing. Utilizing radio broadcasts of the same performances, they were able to restore the songs to their full length as well as provide audio recordings that were superior to the original film soundtrack. Audience footage was used to provide visual transitions.
The efforts were well worth it, as the performances themselves range from very good to electrifying. The first set, July 18th, finds Charles and company in a slightly reserved mood. Tenor saxophonist David “Fathead” Newman, in particular, seems to be having an off night – throwing some of his solos away, fiddling with his horn, and generally lacking energy. His flute work on “Georgia on My Mind” is extremely effective, however. The three instrumentals that start the set feature some excellent soloing by Charles, emphasizing his generally underrated piano skills.
The July 22nd set finds Charles utterly on fire, perhaps because this was his final performance at the festival. Classics like “I Believe to My Soul” and “What’d I Say” are served up with sizzling intensity. The Raeletts sound fantastic, with Margie Hendrix in especially fierce form on “Tell the Truth.” The band nails it throughout the set as well, with Newman back on point. The rhythm section of Bruno Car on drums and Edgar Willis on double bass really cooks, too. The audience, shown frequently, is appreciative – if somewhat reserved. Many of them appear a bit rhythmically challenged, though the frequent out-of-time clapping may have had more to do with sync issues as the editors tried to patch gaps in the footage.
The bonus material – five songs from July 19th and one from July 21st – totals about twenty-three minutes. It’s no less essential than the longer sets, with a smoldering take on “I Wonder” from the 21st and perhaps the most exciting version of “What’d I Say” from the 19th. Ray Charles – Live in France 1961, now available on DVD from Eagle Rock Entertainment, is a truly valuable addition to the late artist’s legacy.