The church, R&B, country, jazz, and Ray Charles

Ultimate fusion
By JON GARELICK  |  September 4, 2012

RAY'S BAG Jazz pianist, R&B singer, melder of sacred, secular, country, and urban — Ray Charles did
it all.

Pan-stylistic fiddler and Berklee professor Matt Glaser was trying to come up with a selling point for his bosses at school on an idea for his American Roots Program — a symposium on blues, country music, and jazz. "I found it difficult to give a sexy elevator speech" on the topic, Glaser says. "Then it occurred to me: Ray Charles would be a great prism." And as luck would have it, this happens to be the 50th anniversary of Ray's benchmark, Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music. Sold!

Thus was born the upcoming weekend-long "Inspired by Ray: The Ray Charles Symposium," September 21-23. The event will include panel discussions like "Ray Charles, the Church, and Southern Music," "Ray Charles the Businessman," "Ray Charles and Black Music," and a conversation with Charles biographer Michael Lydon. There will be performances by the Laszlo Gardony Trio, the Jazz Composers Alliance Orchestra (from their wonderful 2008 album, Everybody Loves Ray Charles), and Glaser's own Wayfaring Strangers. The centerpiece event will be a Saturday night concert with, among others, John Scofield, Ricky Skaggs, Raul Midón, Doug Wamble, and former Raelettes Tonette McKinney, Renee Georges, and Katrina Harper.

Glaser, best known to American television audiences as a genial, snaggle-toothed talking head from Ken Burns's Jazz, has long had a passion for examining the many crosscurrents of American roots music. He says the roots program at Berklee was born of the students' hunger for a wide variety of American music. Looking to fill the gaps in their music knowledge, Glaser decided to focus on "rural music and American music up to 1950." Young students arrive without much historical knowledge. For them, Glaser says, "Charlie Parker is the caveman at the beginning of time who discovered fire."

Brother Ray, then, is the perfect key to all American musical mythologies, the man who, as Glaser said, was "at the top of the musical food chain, absorbing everything beneath him." He brought black church music into the barroom by turning the gospel number "It Must Be Jesus," by vocal group the Southern Tones, into "I Got a Woman"; he brought soul to any number of "white" Tin Pan Alley standards like "Georgia on My Mind," and, on Modern Sounds, he gave the rootsiest of country standards an urban sheen, replete with bebop piano licks and Hollywood horn-and-string arrangements.

"Ray Charles is able to appreciate a wider range of American music than almost anyone I can think of," says Glaser. And of course, there's that remarkable voice — both down-home and uptown at once, soulful at every turn.

One of Saturday night's featured players, Scofield, who also brings his trio to the Regattabar on Thursday and Friday, got to dig into the master's music on the 2005 album That's What I Say: John Scofield Plays the Music of Ray Charles. Scofield has fancy guest vocalists on the disc (Dr. John, Mavis Staples, Aaron Neville), but what's especially impressive are his own instrumental turns. Reimagining Charles's take on the country standard "Busted," his guitar nearly speaks the lyrics in the fully enunciated bends of each syllable.

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