Album Review #20: The Genius of Ray Charles by Ray Charles (1959)

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The Genius of Ray Charles is an interesting record. Split in half stylistically, with Side 1 containing six Big Band Jazz/R&B tunes and Side 2 six soulful string ballads, it tries (and succeeds) to accomplish a lot of different things. It takes a lot of musical skill to pull off something like this,  but luckily for us Ray Charles possesses such a talent, tenfold.

In my opinion, the highlight of the album has to be its opening track, “Let the Good Times Roll.” It’s almost stupidly catchy, and Ray’s vocals are excellent. In all honesty, it’s one of the best songs I’ve heard on the list so far. Also from Side 1, we have “Two Years of Torture” and “When Your Lover Has Gone.” While he saves all the outright ballads for Side 2, these two songs are still pumped full of the blues. His singing throughout the album is filled with emotion and passion, giving weight and meaning to each lyric he sings.

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Image Source: IMDb.com

Side 2 displays a much different style of music from the first. Eschewing the sometimes-harsh, always-loud brass band in favor of a softer string section (plus oboe and backing vocals), for the album’s second half Ray offers the listener an excellent selection of heart-felt ballads. “Am I Blue?” is the best out of all of these, with “Don’t Let the Sun Catch You Crying” being a very close second. As with Side 1, his vocals are excellent, with great amounts of expression in each line.

It may seem a bit egotistical for him to name his album The Genius of Ray Charles. Not so. This album more than justifies its grandiose title. With a perfect 50/50 balance of genres, with each half good enough to be an excellent EP on its own, this record is a true classic that any music lover should hear.

Favorite Tracks: “Let the Good Times Roll,” “Two Years of Torture,” “When Your Lover Has Gone,” “Am I Blue?,” “Don’t Let the Sun Catch You Crying”

Next Up: Kind of Blue by Miles Davis (1959)

Album Review #19: Ella Fitzgerald Sings the George and Ira Gershwin Songbook by Ella Fitzgerald (1959)

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Whew. I’ve gone through the book a few times, and I am almost certain that this album, Ella Fitzgerald Sings the George and Ira Gershwin Songbook, is the single longest album in the entire book. At just over three hours in length, it’s an absolute monster of a record (or rather, five records). It’s packed to the absolute bursting point with catchy pop tunes and Gershwin’s legendary instrumentation (arranged by Nelson Riddle), and it is simply an all-you-can-eat buffet for the ears.

It starts off with about 13 minutes of instrumentals, entitled “Ambulatory Suite” and “The Preludes.” Gershwin’s composing and Riddle’s conducting really get a chance to shine here, with almost every second just emanating Americana. Ella’s singing comes in with “Sam and Delilah,” and her delivery is just great. She sings each line with personality and attitude, and just seems to perfectly encapsulate the era with style and swing.

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Image Source: history.com

Normally I like to make a short list of my favorite tracks from each album. Well, that won’t be easy this time: there are 57 tracks here, and they’re all great. So a few songs that I enjoyed, pretty much arbitrarily chosen, are “The Real American Folk Song,” “Just Another Rhumba,” “By Strauss,” “Stiff Upper Lip,” “Love is Sweeping the Country,” and “Slap That Bass.” I honestly don’t think there’s a single track in this massive album that I didn’t enjoy to some extent. I’ve listened to the whole thing start to finish a couple times now, and each time is just as enjoyable as the first listen. I guess if there’s one negative criticism I have regarding this one, it’s that it is just too overstuffed. I’m not complaining, but I can definitely imagine it being tough to get through for other listeners.

I don’t expect any of you to listen to all three hours of this thing. Even I find it to be best enjoyed when split up into smaller parts. But for those with the time and patience, Gershwin Songbook is a worthwhile listen, and a highly enjoyable one at that. Ella Fitzgerald is ridiculously talented, and this album showcases possibly the highlight of her catalog. So, give it a listen! You might just enjoy it.

Favorite Tracks: “The Real American Folk Song,” “Just Another Rhumba,” “By Strauss,” “Stiff Upper Lip,” “Love is Sweeping the Country,” “Slap That Bass.”

Next Up: The Genius of Ray Charles by Ray Charles (1959)

Album Review #18: Sarah Vaughan At Mister Kelly’s by Sarah Vaughan (1958)

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The live album Sarah Vaughan At Mister Kelly’s sadly just left me underwhelmed. I find that the hardest album to write about isn’t the one that you hate, but the one that you simply don’t have strong opinions on. I didn’t hate it, but I didn’t like it either. It had a couple songs that I enjoyed, but for the most part it just didn’t seem to speak to me.

Sarah Vaughan has a great voice. If there’s one thing in particular that I enjoyed, it’s her singing. Her voice just doesn’t seem to have any flaws. She’s mastered the art of singing a completely unwavering, flawless tone. Her backing band is pretty good too; even though they’re only three people, they still manage to create a great mood with just a piano, bass and drums. My favorite track out of the 20 (I’m reviewing the re-release version, which includes the full, unabridged performance) is probably “Willow Weep for Me,” with a good melody, lyrics and piano throughout. In a particularly memorable moment, partway through the song, Vaughan makes a brief mistake and plays it off brilliantly, making the audience laugh a good amount. Some other good tracks include “Alone” and “Poor Butterfly.”

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Image source: Wikimedia Commons

So, this album just didn’t work for me. It’s not bad, I just personally didn’t like it very much. Maybe it’s the minimalist backing band that doesn’t really hold up after 70 minutes, or maybe it just has the misfortune of having to follow up Billie Holiday’s Lady in Satin. Either way, it really pains me to say that this album just didn’t do it for me. What did you think? Leave your opinions in the comments, I’d love to hear them!

Favorite Tracks: “Willow Weep for Me,” “Alone,” “Poor Butterfly”

Next Up: Ella Fitzgerald Sings the George and Ira Gershwin Songbook by Ella Fitzgerald (1959)

Album Review #16: Lady in Satin by Billie Holiday (1958)

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Lady in Satin is truly a haunting record. One of the most raw, emotional and deeply personal musical recordings of all time, it still manages to leave listeners speechless over a half-century later. It was sadly the final album Billie Holiday would release during her lifetime, as she would die of liver cirrhosis brought on by alcoholism, just a year and a half later at the age of 44. Her voice is damaged and weak in this album,  and while you would think that such a thing would detract from the music, in reality it’s exactly the opposite. She gives one of the most profound and emotional vocal performances I have ever heard in this record, singing every line with the entirety of her heart and soul. This album is truly unforgettable.

I can’t help but make comparisons to a previous album on this list, In the Wee Small Hours by Frank Sinatra, released 1955. They are incredibly similar in instrumentation, mood and lyrical content, and while I prefer Sinatra’s album (it’s still #1 on my album rankings after 16 albums!), this album is still a masterpiece in its own right. They share three of the same songs, (namely, covers of “I Get Along Without You Very Well,” “Glad to Be Unhappy,” and “I’ll Be Around”) but despite the many similarities, they remain wildly different albums. Sinatra’s voice is unwavering and flawless, and Holiday’s voice is tattered and broken. Both singing styles compliment the music greatly, but in much different ways. Personally, I prefer Holiday’s delivery, as I find it conveys a whole world of emotion that Sinatra’s only hints at in comparison. Ray Ellis, the mastermind behind Lady in Satin’s brilliant instrumentation, was originally unhappy with her damaged-sounding vocals, but listening to the master tapes later in production, he heard it in a whole new light. He noted that her delivery and performance didn’t shine in opposition to her voice, but rather the two enhanced each other. I completely agree; she really knew how to sing a lyric, and her decades of musical experience shined through and brought this album from average to unforgettable.

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Photo of Billie Holiday, source: MTV.com

My personal favorite of the album’s eleven tracks is “For Heaven’s Sake.” It’s got the usual great vocal delivery, but there’s just so much nuance and subtlety in the instrumentation, such as the brilliantly understated piano in the opening. I almost can’t even put my finger on just what makes this track so good. One of my favorite parts is this high-register background voice that shows up throughout the record (courtesy of Elise Bretton and Miriam Workman). It sounds almost theremin-like, and grants each track an otherworldly, ethereal vibe that just seems to speak to me on a deep, indescribable level. Holiday’s vocals and Ellis’ orchestra work together absolutely flawlessly, and together they create a borderline perfect atmosphere of both gloom and hope. This is a theme carried throughout the album; almost every track deals in doomed love and broken relationships, ruminating on the nature of love in the face of uncertainty and opposition. Some other highlights include her take on the staple “I Get Along Without You Very Well,” as well as the ultra-downer “You’ve Changed.” The album sure gives you a lot to think about, and is a highly emotional listening experience from start to finish.

So in conclusion, Lady in Satin is a masterpiece, plain-and-simple. Billie Holiday delivers one of the best vocal performances I’ve ever heard on this album, and Ray Ellis’ instrumentation is worth the listen on its own. It’s an album I would recommend to any music lover, and I don’t think I’ll be forgetting about this one any time soon.

Favorite Tracks: “For Heaven’s Sake,” “I Get Along Without You Very Well,” “You’ve Changed”

Next Up: Jack Takes the Floor by Ramblin’ Jack Elliott (1958)

Album Review #13: Kenya by Machito (1957)

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Kenya by Machito is one of my favorite records of the list so far. Explosive and exciting all of the way through, it really is one of those albums that I struggle to find anything I dislike about it. It remains fully enjoyable and engaging even after multiple repeat listens, and of the thirteen albums I’ve reviewed so far, this one is definitely my favorite.

There honestly isn’t a single track on this album that I didn’t thoroughly enjoy, but even then a few were definite highlights. “Wild Jungle” is probably my favorite out of its twelve tracks. It kicks the album off in a hyper-energetic frenzy that’s almost impossible to sit still to. My second favorite track has to be “Conversation,” with a ridiculously catchy and dance-able melody that’s so good it manages to carry the whole song. The entire album retains the excellence of these two tracks, though, so picking highlights is almost pointless.

So, if you’ve never heard this album before, you absolutely should. While In the Wee Small Hours still tops my rankings, this one’s a definite #2. This one gets my biggest recommendation.

Favorite Tracks: “Wild Jungle,” “Conversation”

Least Favorite Track: Uhh… I got nothing.

Next Up: Here’s Little Richard by Little Richard (1957)

Album Review #12: Birth of the Cool by Miles Davis (1957)

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This album is good, but not great. Miles Davis is undoubtedly my favorite jazz musician, and his later albums, namely Kind of Blue and Bitches Brew, rank among my favorite albums of all time. With this one, however, it was just kind of forgettable for me. Maybe because it’s stuck in the shadow of the records that were to follow, but Birth of the Cool just didn’t really do much for me.

It’s hard to write about an album that you don’t really have any feelings towards, positive or negative. That said, there were some tracks here and there that I enjoyed enough to mention. “Moon Dreams” is in my opinion the highlight of the album, with a great mood and relaxing atmospherics. “Godchild” is pretty catchy, with a jumpy melody and the usual quality improvisation. Other than those two, none of the tracks really stuck out to me in particular. There aren’t any bad tracks on this album, just ones that fail to make an impression.

So this album just wasn’t for me. It’s alright, but I probably won’t be revisiting it again. Miles Davis’ later albums are absolutely incredible however, and I can’t wait to get to them. So what did you think of this album? Leave your feedback in the comments, I’d love to hear your opinions!

Favorite Tracks: “Moon Dreams,” “Godchild”

Next Up: Kenya by Machito (1957)

Album Review #10: Brilliant Corners by Thelonious Monk (1957)

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I didn’t enjoy The Atomic Mr. Basie very much, so what a surprise it was that directly following it on the list was Brilliant Corners: simply put, the best jazz album I’ve heard in this book so far. It was one of Thelonious Monk’s first major successes as a jazz musician, and for good reason; it’s incredibly engaging, creative, and well-performed, and just a great listen start to finish.

The title track that opens the album is, in my opinion, the strongest track of the album. It’s intro, in particular, is one of the best openings to a song that I’ve ever heard, and certainly leaves a lasting impression. It switches back and forth between different tempos at a moments notice, and is a little hard to keep up with at times, but still manages to be one of my favorite jazz tracks in the book so far. Fun fact: the track was so difficult to play that they never got a complete perfect take, and they ended up having to stitch together different recordings in post. Another great track is “Pannonica,” a seriously heavenly sounding, almost lullaby-like song that made me feel like I was melting into my chair with relaxation. If there’s any track I didn’t like as much, I would say probably “I Surrender, Dear,” a solo piano piece, but not because it’s in any way bad, just because it’s unfortunate enough to be on the same album as the other four jazz masterpieces.

So this album was most definitely a pleasant surprise. Thelonious Monk’s jazz prowess is truly unparalleled, and must be witnessed to be understood. Anyone with even a minor interest in jazz should give this album a listen.

Favorite Tracks: “Brilliant Corners,” “Pannonica”

Least Favorite Track: “I Surrender, Dear”

Next Up: Palo Congo by Sabu (1957)