Rare Genius: The Undiscovered Masters gives music fans a peek inside the Ray Charles vault with ten previously unreleased songs. Available October 26th on Concord Records, this is the rare archival release that actually hangs together like a real album. Rather than release an expensive box set only a hardcore completist would appreciate, Rare Genius offers forty or so minutes of prime Ray Charles. The songs were originally recorded over the course of three decades, the 1970s-’90s, yet the album flows smoothly. None of these are scratchy cassette demos — the fidelity of these studio tracks is sterling throughout.
Studio musicians were brought in to flesh out some of the more skeletal arrangements. Seeing as these were in some cases unfinished recordings, the producers decided to tastefully approximate the sound Charles likely had in mind. Whether or not this is appropriate, or even acceptable, is certainly debatable. Posthumous releases by a variety of artists have been ruined by the intrusions of overzealous producers.
Luckily this project was overseen by John Burk, co-producer of Charles’ final studio album, Genius Loves Company, who approached the matter with the utmost respect for the material. Nothing on Rare Genius sounds out of place; the enhancements blend in perfectly. In fact, I couldn’t even tell what elements were newly recorded.
As for the songs themselves, there are many highlights. “It Hurts To Be In Love” is a jazzy, swinging number featuring Charles’ strongest vocal on the album. “I’m Gonna Keep On Singin’” coasts along on a light funk groove, with tasty horn licks and seemingly improvised vocal interjections. Charles’ much celebrated country-and-western side emerges on a deeply soulful reading of Hank Cochran’s “A Little Bitty Tear.”
Speaking of country, Charles joins forces with another departed legend, Johnny Cash, on the closing track. The only tune not sourced from the Ray Charles vault, this 1981 version of Kris Kristofferson’s “Why Me, Lord?” was found in Sony’s vault. Billed as a duet, it should be understood that Cash actually sings lead with Charles’ contributing backing vocals and keyboard accompaniment.
I hope there are enough goodies like this in the Ray Charles vault to justify a sequel. I also hope that Concord (or somebody) has plans to continue reissuing Charles’ back catalogue. It strikes me as odd that so many of his albums have not been remastered and reissued. Charles had a run of great albums in the late ’60s through the ’70s (many are available for download on iTunes) that have never been issued on CD. These include 1975′s Renaissance, 1977′s True To Life, and 1979′s Ain’t It So, to name but a few. I’m sure I speak for many fans by emphasizing the need for all his official albums to be readily available on compact disc alongside archival collections like Rare Genius.
Casual fans and diehards alike will be thrilled with this unearthing of “new” Ray Charles material. Rare Genius: The Undiscovered Masters works so well because it’s all meat and potatoes. Brief enough that it never wears out its welcome, the collection is enjoyable from start to finish.