It doesnít take a lot of marquee names to sell a Ray Charles record, but the Genius proved long before 2004ís Genius Loves Company that he was a master collaborator as well as a very natural one.
On Genius & Friends, Rhino Records smartly capitalizes on Charlesís gift for investing any duet with both backbone and bluesy, velvety soul by rounding up recordings he made in 1997 and 1998 and swelling them with the sounds of artists he inspired.
The result is both brilliant and frustrating: brilliant because artists like Mary J. Blige, Gladys Knight, and Patti LaBelle so reliably tread their tracks with care and affection, reining in all that raw vocal power where a song requires it; and frustrating because it would have been incredible to hear each of the very different artists gathered here trading verses with Brother Ray in real time--producer Phil Ramone fused these songs together. (In two cases, we do get the pleasure: ĹBig Bad LoveĹ, recorded in 1994 with Diana Ross for the film The Favor, and ĹBusted,Ĺ recorded live in 1991 with Willie Nelson.)
To the producersí credit (add Ahmet Ertegun and Quincy Jones to Ramone) the audio wizardry required to make this disc does not once interfere with the sense it conveys that the chosen artists really were Ray Charlesís friends.
Hear it especially on the Idina Menzel heartwarmer ĹI Will Be ThereĹ and Bligeís ĹIt All Goes By So Fast,Ĺ as silkily convincing as it is bittersweet.