Holiday Box-Set Roundup

Ray Charles
Genius and Soul: The 50th Anniversary Collection

IN 1955, RAY Charles bled gospel into gutbucket. His rhythm 'n' blues smash "I Got a Woman"--a rewrite of the old hymn "I Got a Savior"--took the line "I got a savior/Way over Jordan," hollered it sidelong as "I gotta woman/Way over town," and effectively refigured Christian need and plain desire, into, well, the most exciting American expression I can conjure. Elvis beat the tar out of that expression; the Stones rode it like doom. But the idiot pub-rat Rod Stewart perfected the stuff on his Every Picture Tells a Story (1973). Yet, the two dozen songs on the Levitical first disc of the five-disc Genius and Soul box lets us feel R&B--and its redheaded stepsister rock & roll--at its rawest, its most orgasmic. When Ray and his Wurlitzer organ lean into his back-up chorus, the Raylettes, on "What'd I Say Parts 1&2," the call-and-response "ooohhhhhhs" and "yeeeeaaaahhhs" are almost pornographic.

The church-born call-and-response wailing technique (see my heroes, the Swan Silvertones) would become a crutch for Ray, and by the middle of the second disc (right after "Hit the Road Jack") you begin to pray for something new. Ray never really offered it. The maudlin (though not wholly unredeeming) string-soaked country covers gleaned from his 1963 pair of hit albums Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music bury the rangy intensity of his voice. His Beatles covers (opening disc four) were constipated at best. Ray, like Elvis, quickly became a pop singer. By the time we hear him do tunes like "Makin' Whoopee," "I Don't Know What Time It Was," and Barry Manilow's "One of These Days," we're listening with something akin to pity. Lust's empathy has long since left the building.

But even the aging Ray has that voice. If you want proof, listen to his jive-turkey/sexpot-boileth-over routine in a charged 1971 gospel duet with Aretha, "Spirit In the Dark (Reprise)," or groove as his backseat mumbles undercut Ben Martin's Stax guitar strut on "Booty Butt." (That's right, "Booty Butt"--it was a hit, dammit!) Those gems notwithstanding, 80 percent of Genius and Soul is a patchwork at best; it chugs along with Charles's career until hitting the tired (and almost heartwarming) 1993 cover of "Still Crazy After All These Years." So leave it be, and go with Rhino's The Birth of Soul: The Complete Atlantic Rhythm and Blues Recordings, 1952-1959 box. That fucker has God in it. (Jon Dolan)

Charles Mingus
Passions of a Man: The Complete Atlantic Recordings (1956-1961)

THIS SIX-CD reissue from Rhino is a root-shaking civics lesson, a reminder that democracy (a cliché in the modern-jazz vernacular) is based on both individual expression and collective rebellion. Bassist/composer Charles Mingus, who produced the set's six albums for Atlantic while he was recording for various labels, delivers musical sermons inspired by Ellington, haunted by the ghost of Bird, and always propelled toward all-out wail, the precursor to Ornette Coleman's freedom ride. Instead of evoking varied colors or vague images and shapes, Mingus and the collection's more than 20 collaborators paint vivid street scenes, humanized by loose, jaw-breaking solos and a sporadically funky, always swinging gait. From the impassioned shouts driving "Wednesday Night Prayer Meeting" and the rumbling moan of "Oh Lord Don't Let Them Drop That Atomic Bomb On Me" to the grinning bop of "Blue Cee," there are mercurial shifts in pace and political purpose. But the gutbucket is always within earshot, sprayed with boiling blood and angry sweat.

The groups sport different styles and sizes. With Teddy Charles on vibraphone, a quartet date on the second half of disc one cradles the ear on a deliciously dreamy cushion. The head-reeling, horn-driven Blues and Roots Session takes its cue from wandering alto players Jackie McLean and John Handy, talkative trombonist Jimmy Knepper, and Pepper Adams, who keeps things anchored with his foot-stomping baritone sax. Mingus at Antibes, recorded three months later, is an all-out jam, its irresistible, blues-drenched groove delivered with a fervor usually associated with after-hours rock & roll. The Clown Session, an eclectic combination of orchestral discipline and raw chatter, could be a soundtrack for the Beat Movement. The title track hinges on a spoken-word improv from New York DJ Jean Shepherd, the humorist who hooked Mingus up with filmmaker John Cassavetes.

Mingus neophytes will find themselves addicted to the spiritual fervor, schizophrenic pulse, and unassuming, but uncanny, musicianship. Hard-core fans, even those who already own a majority of the work, will feast on the revealing alternate takes, chronological progression, and a stream-of-consciousness interview filling the final disc. Everyone will marvel at Mingus's ability to express his fierce individuality while at the same time allowing for an unprecedented amount of give-and-take between the band and the compositions set before them. (David Schimke)

The Zombies
Zombie Heaven
Big Beat, UK

LIKE MANY OF their mid-'60s contemporaries, the Zombies began as a better-than-average teenybop pop group and rapidly evolved into visionary artists eager to explore new avenues in songcraft and studio experimentation. Yet, while the classics created by their more famous, like-minded contemporaries--Sgt. Pepper, Pet Sounds, etc.--have been canonized (and recanonized), the British five-piece's masterpiece, Odessey and Oracle, has yet to make most rock historians' record books. Nevertheless, the Zombies' Abbey Road-recorded 1968 swan song stands among the finest works of the psychedelic era. Ripe with Technicolor vocal harmonies, ornate piano clusters, and swirling organ augmentation, it basks in the dappled naïveté of songs about, you know, Really Important Topics: World War I ("Butchers Tale (Western Front 1914)"), William Faulkner ("A Rose for Emily"), and the universal travails of unrequited love (every other song on the record). Yet, while Odessey yielded the band its biggest single, the airily funky "Time of the Season," it failed to tie down a mass audience, saving its spacey, studiocentric influence for today's artier 4-trackers (see Apples In Stereo) and psych-pop wiz kids (and/or Papas Fritas).

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