Michael Cuscuna on The Blue Room

Part One

When Ray Charles’s Modern Sounds In Country And Western Music was released in the summer of 1962, it caused quite a stir. To purists with a tendency toward musical genre profiling, Ray Charles had no business giving credibility to redneck hillbilly music.

Then there was the general public who came out in droves to make Modern Sounds In Country And Western Music  Ray Charles’s most successful album to date rather than his most controversial.

What we all realized in hindsight was that this album, like no other Ray Charles recording before it, represented an artistic freedom that most recording artists over the past fifty years have routinely enjoyed. Nobody wanted Ray Charles to sing country & western songs… except Ray Charles. In 1960, he had signed an unprecedented contract with ABC-Paramount where he retained artistic control of his sessions and ownership of his masters. In the process, he used his artistry and genius to break down musical categories and barriers.

In 1963, the ‘60s (the era, not the decade) began in earnest with the assassination of Medgar Evers, Governor George Wallace’s attempt to block the entrance of two black students at the University of Alabama, the Civil Rights March On Washington, the church bombing in Birmingham which killed four children and the assassination of President Kennedy. A succession of assassinations, protests, abuses of authority and riots defined the next seven years as race, war and class divided a country. Bob Dylan articulated our outrage and Ray Charles healed our wounds and fed our souls.

 Part Two

By the time Larry Klein discovered Modern Sounds, he was 12 and it was 6. Modern Sounds was already a classic. Larry found himself revisiting the album frequently over the next four decades. In an inspired moment, he thought a re-examination of this album would be an ideal project for Madeleine Peyroux because “she comes from the same places – jazz, country and blues.”

Georgia-born and Brooklyn and Paris-bred with a New Orleans pedigree, Madeleine Peyroux grew up in a household rich in Southern culture and filled with the sounds of Fats Domino, Hank Williams and Buddy Holly to name a few. “Ray Charles was a part of that mix and an important one,” she explains, “I knew many of the songs, but I never knew that album per se.“

Madeleine is an artist whose sensibility and eclectic musical mix make for magnificent story-telling. And the songs that Ray Charles chose for Modern Sounds are, above all, stories. Wisely, Madeleine felt that the infusion of newer but like-minded material was essential to this project and gems like Warren Zevon’s “Desparadoes Under The Eaves” and Randy Newman’s “Guilty” attest to herimpeccable instincts, as does the resurrection of a wonderful and obscure Buddy Holly song “Changing All Those Changes.”

Larry Goldings, Dean Parks, David Piltch and Jay Bellerose form the group that provides the spare, tasteful backing arranged by Larry Klein for each song. Vince Mendoza’s string arrangements on six tracks are beautiful, unpredictable and perfectly appropriate to the tone and mood of each song. If there is a direct musical link to Ray Charles, it’s Goldings’s soulful, in-the-pocket keyboard work with the same kind of perfectly placed notes and use of space that were part of Charles’s signature.

This is an album of music that is letter-perfect but coursing with blood, and it is as comfortable as an old pair of shoes. And like the Ray Charles album to which it pays homage, it reinvents everything it touches.

Michael Cuscuna
November 2012