Ray Charles Genius Loves Company

The recent passing of another cornerstone figure in American popular music is certainly a cause for great sadness. But true to form, Ray Charles was working right up until the end, and this album of duets serves as a fitting tribute by some of the countless artists he influenced while they still had a chance to pay it. The roster spans all of the genres Charles managed to condense into his own sound: blues, gospel, jazz, country and pop, and overall, a clean and sympathetic production makes for a consistent vibe throughout the album. And for someone as single-minded as Charles was, he always seemed adept at singing with others. That skill is obviously crucial here, and the real joy is hearing the interplay he has with his partners, often pushing them to reach his level. All of this too, despite the toll of disease evident in Charles’ voice. Still, every track brims with his infectious spirit, from the lazy opener "Here We Go Again” with Norah Jones, to a rousing live showdown with Van Morrison on "Crazy Love.” In between, it’s the country and blues sides of Charles that most often win out, with fine takes of "Do I Ever Cross Your Mind,” with Bonnie Raitt, and "Sinner’s Prayer,” with B.B. King being the standouts. It’s clearly difficult to sum up the career of such an important man with a final statement such as this. Yet, aside from a few arguable choices, Genius Love Company is vintage Ray Charles: playful, inspiring, and above all, pure soul. (Concord)