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Reflecting his soul

Alex Coolman

Newton Wayland is cooking musical stew, stirring up the ingredients of a

dish called Ray Charles.

Charles comes to the Orange County Performing Art Center to play with the


Pacific Symphony Pops tonight and Saturday. And Wayland, the conductor

for both evenings, has put together a program intended to illustrate the

Georgia crooner’s roots.

The 69-year-old singer has been called “the genius of soul,” for his


powerful, gospel-tinged vocal style and his seemingly unlimited powers of


But Charles didn’t emerge from nowhere. Wayland hopes the tunes he has

selected for the first half of the program will help listeners understand

just what it was about American music in 1930 that was such fertile

ground for Charles’ development.

“I’m a history buff,” Wayland said. “I like to explore the roots of

stuff, and that’s what I’m doing, with a minimum of time.”


Packed into the first 30 to 40 minutes of the concert are tunes by the

likes of Irving Berlin, Scott Joplin and Louis Moreau Gottschalk, the

first prominent American composer to use Latin American and Creole

rhythms in his compositions.

The point of this tour through American musical history, Wayland said, is

to articulate the lineage that lead up to Charles.

In the “Grand Walkaround” melody that will be performed from Gottschalk’s

“Cakewalk,” for example, Wayland is emphasizing the importance of 19th


century African American music to Charles’ style.

The cakewalk was a dance performed on plantations, Wayland explained. Its

essential forms were transmitted from these rural roots into the stage

environment of minstrel shows.The music then filtered through ragtime and

into jazz.

“Eventually,” Wayland added, “you end up with Ray Charles.”

But Charles’ style is complex and eclectic. It draws not only on blues

and jazz traditions, but also those of gospel, which are integral to the

sound of “soul.”

"[Gospel] is a big thread, especially in Charles’ singing,” Wayland said.

“He was one of the first singers to be commercially successful with that

kind of gospel shout and then to take it into the jazz idiom.”

In his compositions -- which range from rock to soul and from blues to

county -- Charles draws on this challenging mixture of styles. Though he

had his start as a performer by narrowly imitating the mannerisms of Nat

King Cole, the mature Charles is a character who can’t be pinned down in

any single mode or manner.

“That’s always impressed me -- that he didn’t get stuck in one groove and

that he was successful somehow in putting his imprint on these songs and

getting them across to the public,” Wayland said.

The performer’s wide-ranging body of work is a good match for Wayland’s

own personality, the conductor said. Wayland has been conducting pops

symphonies for years -- in Boston, Denver, Houston and elsewhere --

precisely because he likes to be involved with music that has a broad


“I’ve always been a populist in that I try to reach a general rather than

an elitist audience,” he said.

Though Wayland has an enthusiasm for composers he considers

“fuddy-duddies” -- such classical musicians as Sergey Prokofiev -- his

overwhelming desire is to gain a sort of coherent picture of musical

history. “Filling in the gaps of my eclecticism,” he calls it.

And that’s where Charles comes in. He’ll fill the gap under the labels:

Soul Genius, Survivor and Star.


* WHAT: Ray Charles with the Pacific Symphony Orchestra

* WHEN: 8 p.m. today and Saturday

* WHERE: Orange County Performing Arts Center, 600 Town Center Drive,

Costa Mesa

* COST: $14 to $54

* PHONE: (714) 740-7878