The perfect collaboration: Ray Charles and Count Basie

Technology has brought Ray Charles together with the surviving members of Count Basie's band. Sholto Byrnes listens in
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Ray Charles and Count Basie: it would have been a killer combination, an obvious collaboration between two giants of music. They shared bills many times and Charles recorded his 1960 album Genius + Soul = Jazz with a horn section that included many Basie sidemen.

"When Ray explained how he wanted me to write an arrangement," said his orchestrator Sid Feller, "he'd point to Basie charts as templates. He wanted that thick harmony in the reeds. He wanted those clean horn punches. He wanted it simple like Basie, and he wanted it strong. Mostly, though, he wanted that Basie swing."

Yet it never quite happened - until now. A few months ago a recording from the mid-Seventies (no one's sure of the precise date) surfaced. Labelled "Ray Charles and Count Basie", it contained material from a European tour run by the great jazz impresario Norman Granz. The sound quality was atrocious - the tape was from the concert mixing desks, and had been recorded solely through Charles's vocal microphone.

He hadn't actually been performing with the Basie band, but it put a thought in the head of John Burk, the record company executive who'd unearthed them: could he clean up the vocals and mix them with the still-surviving Basie orchestra? The result is Ray Sings Basie Swings, a labour of love undertaken by the producer Gregg Field, who was ideally placed to head the project as he had spent years as a drummer first for Ray Charles and then Count Basie. Field painstakingly edited out as much as he could from the tape, apart from Charles's vocals. He then placed these on top of new recordings of the tunes played by the current Basie orchestra (it has continued since the Count's death in 1984).

"It was like painting the Sistine Chapel with a Q-tip," says Field. "We were having to move the vocal phrases by milliseconds to get them to fit just right with the band." The reason for this was that Field didn't want to record the Basie band to a click track. "You can't do that with the Basie band," he says. "You set a tempo, and let them take it from there." The piano-playing, too, had to be an exact replica, as Field had not been able to excise Charles's original performance from the tape completely.

The finished album ranges from shows tunes and jazz standards, including "Oh, What a Beautiful Morning" and "How Long Has This Been Going On?", to R&B numbers such as "Let the Good Times Roll", The Beatles' "The Long and Winding Road" and, naturally, "Georgia On My Mind", a tune that Charles had made his own.

In fact, the two did perform together on the session from which the new album derives. "Oscar Peterson was on the bill, along with Ray and Basie," explains Field. "After Ray's set, all three came on and jammed with Ray's rhythm section, but without the big band." Sadly, as this, like the rest, had been recorded only through Charles's vocal microphone, the music is unreleasable.

Putting two artists together posthumously has been done before - one thinks of Natalie Cole's duets with her father, Nat King Cole, or the soundtrack to Clint Eastwood's Bird, in which Charlie Parker's sax was superimposed on a modern rhythm section. The latter aroused controversy among those who felt it was inappropriate and inauthentic. "But these artists made sense recorded together," argues Field.

Ray Sings Basie Swings does indeed make perfect sense; if one didn't know better, one would think that singer and band had really made the recording together. There's now even a proposal for the Basie band to perform with Jamie Foxx, who won an Oscar for his role as Charles in the 2004 film Ray.

'Ray Sings Basie Swings' is released on 16 October on Concord

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