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POP MUSIC REVIEW : Ray Charles on Top of His Game With Symphony

Times Staff Writer

Sometimes, to make the game more interesting against a lesser opponent, a chess master will take a valuable piece or two off the board and play with a limited arsenal.

Ray Charles, reputed to play a mean game of chess, performs under that sort of limitation when he fronts a symphony orchestra rather than his own musicians, as he did Thursday night in a pops concert with the Pacific Symphony at the Orange County Performing Arts Center in Costa Mesa. He brought no Raeletts with him, so there was no chance for soul-stirring call-and-response singing. There was no horn-driven band to help Charles stomp through such rough-and-tumble staples of his songbook as “I Got a Woman,” “What’d I Say” and “Unchain My Heart.”

No castles, no queen--no chance for the lightning moves or the unfettered soul-shouting style that Charles virtually invented more than 30 years ago. Just a large army of strings, brass and woodwinds forcing a more measured, circumspect approach.

Few performers could sacrifice such a cornerstone of their greatness, such a swath of their most memorable material, and still come up with a winning show. But Charles did just that, proving along the way that soul can manifest itself in subdued hues as well as splashier, swaggering tones.

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Most of the concert, just under an hour long, was an affecting lament, full of unforced sadness and convincing pain expressed with a number of thrilling vocal inventions. Whether Charles sobbed in a low register or rose to a keening falsetto, the Pacific Symphony, led by the singer’s own conductor, Sid Feller, generally underscored his emotions with sensitivity and dignified restraint.

“Georgia on My Mind,” a song that Charles has sung thousands of times since 1960, came across with the immediacy and eloquence of a fine tragic soliloquy. Playing a long sigh of a piano roll while uttering a heartsick interjection--"God’s sake, Georgia"--Charles reached for spontaneity where others might be content to polish a chestnut.

“If You Go Away” was a deep dirge, with Charles clenching and twisting his voice to convey an encompassing, obsessive fear of loss. “Eleanor Rigby” offered Charles’ imaginative reworking of the Beatles standard. While the Beatles’ version has an omniscient narrator observing from a distance, Charles, as in his 1968 recording of the song, stepped out of the third person and into the shoes of Father McKenzie, who observes Eleanor’s lonely life and death. With half-sung, half-spoken phrasing, he turned the priest into a gospel preacher whose sermon expressed anguish over “all the lonely people” rather than pretend to pose any theological answer. Charles, in another inspired stroke, interjected a dialogue in which the anguished priest turns to him for an answer: “ ‘Brother Ray,’ he said, ‘can you tell me, son, where they all belong?’ ”

Charles ended the concert on more of an upbeat, with a country song that got the audience clapping along, a soulful rendition of “America the Beautiful” and, backed only by the three-man rhythm section he had brought with him, some bawdy blues that harkened back to the lean style he pursued in the ‘50s before branching out frequently into lushly orchestrated pop.

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There were some obstacles to overcome--microphone troubles that sabotaged the opening number, occasional chestiness in Charles’ voice and some overbearing symphonic flourishes in the few upbeat songs. But they were overcome, and the result was a richly emotive performance worthy of the grandmaster that Charles is.

Charles’ hour with the Pacific Symphony was the second and far more rewarding half of a schizophrenic pops program that opened with composer Lalo Schifrin as guest conductor. His program included Scott Joplin ragtime presented without playfulness, a “Bolero” that marched into tedium after some nice woodwind mystery-weaving in the early going, and film and TV scores composed by Schifrin that ranged from the ludicrous lounge music of the theme from “Mannix” to the more substantial lyricism and brisk dynamics of “Cool Hand Luke.” Schifrin’s amiable musings between selections were more engaging than most of the music.


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