No matter where one stands on the controversy surrounding the hit album
Ray Sings, Basie Swings, which marries vocals from a 1973 Ray Charles live performance with newly arranged and recorded charts by the Count Basie Orchestra, there's no questioning the technical and musical wizardry that went into its creation.
Ray Sings, Basie Swings producer Gregg Field
When Genius Loves Company producer John Burk came up with the concept after discovering the now-famous tape box misleadingly marked “Ray Charles/Count Basie,” he realized there was only one individual with the prerequisites to oversee the project. Concord staff producer Gregg Field had done stints as the drummer in both Charles' and Basie's bands between 1977 and 1983, additionally writing arrangements for the Genius. “The job called for someone who had worked with both bands and could run Pro Tools, and I guess I was the only one,” says Field with a laugh, admitting he had no idea if he could pull it off.
What he was faced with was a poorly recorded mono tape made off the soundboard mix of Charles' vocal mic, with his piano, The Raelettes and the big band bleeding through. “It sounded like you were hearing it through a small transistor radio from the '60s,” says Field. (A snippet of the original audio can be heard on www.youtube.com/watch?v=Sf0Qqr85CgE.)
The first step in what would turn out to be a five-month project involved bringing in sax player Tom Scott and pianist Shelly Berg to retool the uneven arrangements that Charles' big band had played on the tapes. When the updated charts were ready, Field brought Basie's 17-piece band into the big room at Conway Recording Studios (L.A.), with engineer Don Murray at the board.
“The first challenge,” Field says, “was how were we going to get the band to play with these tapes? If I were using studio musicians, I could have put a variable click on Ray and have them play along, but Basie's band is a different animal. Instead, I played them the tapes so that they knew what his vibe was, then had them put on headphones and play along, just to see how the parts worked with Ray's vocals. I turned off the tape, and we already knew the median tempos, so I'd count it off and have them play it unencumbered by having to follow anything.”
After three days of sessions, Field had big band recordings of the 12 tracks they'd be tackling. The next, even trickier step was to replace Charles' piano. After working up verbatim transcriptions of the parts, Berg and fellow pianist Jim Cox divvied up the songs and started playing with the aim of not just hitting the notes, but also replicating Charles' feel. “It was a huge challenge for these guys,” Field acknowledges, “but when they got it right, it sounded exactly like Ray was playing.” Field did the recording in MIDI so that he'd be able to make the needed minute adjustments.
For the third and final stage of recording — re-creating The Raelettes' backing vocals — Field turned to a very willing Patti Austin, who grabbed the five singers best equipped for the task and then contemporized the arrangements. These parts were laid down at Capitol Studio B, with Bill Smith engineering.
Field and Murray then headed to G Studio Digital, the producer's Studio City, Calif., facility, and using Pro Tools 24/96, began what turned out to be the most laborious part of the project: getting Charles' lo-fi vocals to the state-of-the-art level of the newly recorded backings. It was this stage in particular that has caused Field to liken making the record to “painting the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel with a Q-Tip.”
“First of all,” says Murray, “anything from the original recording that wasn't vocal had to be lost. Then the old drums had to be lined up with the new drums, or the other way around, so that you didn't hear slamming drums in the background. And because Ray's vocal had to be a certain way, the Basie track had to be moved around so that it was in sync with Ray.” One at a time, Murray started assembling mixes of Charles' vocals and the new Basie band performances. “At first, you could tell a big difference, and then I got into manipulating Ray's vocals, bringing out certain qualities and losing others, experimenting with different plug-ins and hardware. I would go through every song, line by line, evening it out, bringing out presence, doing whatever needed to be done.”
Then, at long last, they were ready for mastering legend Doug Sax to do his inimitable thing.
“I was skeptical at first,” Sax says of the project. “But Don and Gregg did an incredible job. It's got a ton of information and a big dynamic range, and if you squeeze it in a normal type of digital way, it'll get small — it won't blossom. So it was basically a matter of level-riding; instead of using limiters, I had to sort of hand-mix it.”
Inevitably, the album, released October 3, 2006, has had a polarizing effect, enchanting some reviewers while causing others to complain that Charles wouldn't have approved of this sort of mash-up. “From working extensively with Ray, I can tell you he loved technology,” Field counters. “Ray would've been the first guy to be in there with Pro Tools messing with it. He would've loved this record because it sounds great and it's musically valid. It's not like we tried to stick Green Day in there with him! I think Ray Charles would stand up and cheer if he heard this record.”
Field may be doing it again next year with some just-discovered studio recordings of Ella Fitzgerald. He and Burk are considering putting Fitzgerald in front of the London Symphony — in a manner of speaking.
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