Reviewed by Jim Caligiuri, Fri., Dec. 9, 2005
Pure Genius: The Complete Atlantic Recordings, 1952-1959 (Rhino)
Most box sets are assembled with the idea of gathering together a particular legacy. A few actually achieve said goal, like John Coltrane's The Heavyweight Champion and The Complete Hank Williams, which combine music and packaging in a way that enhances the listening experience. Add Ray Charles' Pure Genius to the list. Over the course of seven CDs and a DVD, the late Brother Ray proclaims his skill as singer, pianist, saxophone player, songwriter, arranger, and producer. As biographer David Ritz writes in the 80-page book included in the set, "These are the historic years of his creative explosion, the time when he reinvented himself as a musical revolutionary." Amazingly, Charles was still in his 20s at the time of these recordings, yet he blazed a path for soul music, moaning the blues unlike anyone else and proving his mastery of jazz with the likes of Milt Jackson and David "Fathead" Newman while exhibiting a taste for country music. Presented chronologically, Pure Genius naturally collects the hits ("I've Got a Woman," "What I'd Say," "Drown in My Own Tears"), but there's almost an hour of previously unreleased material as well. The last disc is a bonanza of mostly unissued solo performances that range from a lengthy 1953 rehearsal to a few hotel room demos from 1959. The DVD contains a sensational, never-before-seen performance at the 1960 Newport Jazz Festival as well as an interview recorded earlier this year with Atlantic Records co-founder Ahmet Ertegun conducted by Taylor Hackford, director of the motion picture Ray. Equally imaginative is the set's packaging: an imitation, Fifties-style portable record player that includes a hardbound book, which includes original LP liner notes from Nat Hentoff, Billy Taylor, Leonard Feather, and more. Pure delight.