Review: Sonic Mayhem Orchestra plays Music of Ray Charles

When Ray Charles’s 1957 debut album, Ray Charles was reissued in 1962, it was under the new title Hallelujah, I Love Her So.

As well as being the title of one of the album’s most riveting and beguiling songs, the ambiguous phrase “Hallelujah, I Love Her So” seemed to poetically and perfectly sum up Charles’s innovative meld of gospel and blues to form what would become soul.

Gospel and blues: the religious and secular, the sacred and profane, the spirit and the flesh. The excitement of soul was, and still is, the almost religious fervour it applied to sex and its man-woman dance.

And there were few who could deliver that excitement quite like Ray Charles Robinson, a blind orphan whose playing and vocal style were far from conventional but seemed to hit you right where you live.

Sydney saxophonist and arranger James Ryan seems to enjoy looking outside the jazz idiom when cooking up charts for his Sonic Mayhem Orchestra (SMO). He has done Porgy and Bess (Broadway via Gil Evans), almost did Bob Dylan (hopefully next time) and is mounting his arrangements of Bob Marley songs later this month (stay tuned).

On a rainy Thursday, February 28, at Double Bay’s Blue Beat, Ryan and his 12-piece powerhouse – still Sydney’s most elite and dangerous ensemble – paid tribute to Brother Ray with the help of the frankly astonishing Lachy Doley.

As ever, Ryan used the first set of the night to lay out some of his earlier arrangements – and it is always a pleasure. Opener “Oh Yeah” had drummer Gordon Rytmeister sitting in a groove so in-the-pocket that time stood still and held its breath. The more music I listen to, the more I realise the mark of a master is not what he or she does with tricky material, it is what they do with the simplest elements. And on this tune, Rytmeister applied his master’s touch to a groove that, on paper, might look pedestrian but notation can’t capture the heart and soul of that down-the-line drum pattern. Ouch, Gordon.

The SMO moved through a number of dazzling selections, including “It Ain’t Necessarily So” from its Porgy and Bess charts – a vehicle for the nimble alto horn of Kim Lawson (and some nice scored vocalese from singer Trish Delaney-Brown). Second singer Virna Sanzone took us deep into Ryan’s  arrangement of Billie Holliday’s wounded “Don’t Explain”, suspending time with her poised and translucent pearly-pained tones.

When the second set opened, Hammond-soul whizz Lachy Doley was astride his ivory-toothed beast and ready to cause some serious Brother Ray action. The choice of Charles’s funky and Gospel-joyous version of “Oh What a Beautiful Morning” to open was typical James Ryan: never the obvious, always something that will make us prick up our ears. It was also significant, as the original version came from the great long-lost Charles collaboration with the Count Basie Orchestra – Ray Sings, Basie Swings– that the SMO would touch on at various points in the set.

Soul whiz Lachy Doley does Ray Charles

Doley’s uncanny ability to conjure Ray in the room – in voice, movement and those biting Hammond stabs – was evident in “I Got A Woman” up next: as perfect an example of the gospel-blues mix as you could want. The band and Doley were an unstoppable freight train, hurtling through “What’d I Say” and “The Night Time is The Right Time” (Delaney-Brown and Sanzone responding to his call).

For a pair of stripped-down blues the horns went to the bar, leaving Doley with only Rytmeister and bassist Karl Dunnicliff; on the second, the blue-in-indigo “Drown In My Own Tears”, sax player Aaron Michaels gave voice to the ache that was in the lyric – that unspeakable ache that Charles’s long-time tenor foil, David ‘Fathead’ Newman, cried so well so many times.

I am always intrigued about what Ryan will do with the most hackneyed ‘hits’ of the artists he covers with the SMO. As I said, he is allergic to the obvious – as any jazz arranger worth his crotchets is – but certain tunes cry out to be played. “Georgia” was the one, and Ryan didn’t disappoint.

Over a Spanish motif, Doley sang the melody true and straight – against the ‘wrong’ harmony, it sometimes veered almost into the atonal (or polytonal); what Ryan was doing here was stretching it as far as he could, astutely knowing the almost infinite freedom that an indelibly iconic melody allows in interpretation. Like Basie, like Quincy Jones, Ryan goes for the effective and the emotive and it always works. And tonight, “Georgia” – even stretched across a new, modern framework – earned the huge applause it garnered.

Charles was also one for wrapping innovation in an accessible skin (check out his Modern Sounds in Country And Western Music) and the SMO’s encore of “Every Saturday Night” was tight, funky and bristling with ideas. Not that the ass-shakers cared; nor should they.

James Ryan and his band gave us all a rousing night of the genius of The Genius without spilling a drop and I for one cannot wait to see what they do next.

The Band

Lachy Doley: Vocals and Hammond Organ

Trish Delaney- Brown and Virna Sanzone: Back up vocals

Ray Cassar, Simon Ferenci and Cameron Earl: Trumpets

James Ryan, Aaron Michael, Sean Coffin and Kim Lawson: Saxophones

Greg Coffin: Piano

Karl Dunnicliff: Bass

Gordon Rytmeister: Drums

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