The hardest part of writing this review was selecting the mandatory "style" on the web site for submission! What could I do, the site only allows you to pick one style. But when I listened to the latest release from The Eric Byrd Trio +4 entitled Brother Ray, I was challenged to pigeonhole such a sweeping compilation of titles and styles and talent! Yes, this is a tribute to Ray Charles and the music that Ray so uniquely represented, but would you try to put the great Ray Charles in a category? No, I didn't think so! Well when you listen to Brother Ray you will hear some of your favorite blues tunes, big band tunes, duet jazz vocal tunes, and yes, straight-ahead trio tunes. So, I had to pick something, and to try to do this fabulous piece of work some justice.
For me, it came down to two choices, 'big band/swing' or 'jazz vocals.' I chose jazz vocals, because the take-away message I got from this CD was that Eric Byrd can sing, and when he teams up with Lea Gilmore on "Baby It's Cold Outside," it is clear to me that the driving force beind this CD is the vocal tradition of jazz and blues, powered by a killer band. The Eric Byrd Trio is that killer band, and when they add four solid horn players, there is a power behind this CD that at some point is transcendental. You are transported to a time when a blues/jazz arrangment was the catalyst for some wild chemistry. Ray Charles and his contemporaries were the epitome of that chemistry gone wild. Eric has selected the right songs and the right arrangements to conjure up that chemistry, and through Lea Gilmore's incredibly sultry and bluesy vocals it adds some smoke to this CD.
You can feel the reverence to the title character from the opening notes of "Let The Good Times Roll," and it continues on throughout the set list. But to really get the gist of what Eric is trying to convey with this work, listen to the opening bars of "Come Rain or Come Shine." It is a soulfull homage to the man, the music, and the age.
The one thing that I really enjoyed about this CD is that it is a tribute, not an imitation. Byrd doesn't try to mimic Charles, he lets the love and respect he has for the man and his music motivate his own interpretation. He channels the energy and style of Ray, but not the man, so you hear Eric Byrd and the band at their finest as they work some legendary songs. My personal favorite is "I've Got News For You." It has all the elements; Ray Charles, BB King, and even some Professor Longhair! And, the arrangement rivaled some of the best I've heard. In contemporary times, to hear that kind of total package you need to go hear BB himself, or in a pinch, Harry Connick, Jr. "Brother Ray" delivers on all fronts...music and vocals.
I also have to give credit to the members of the Eric Byrd Trio. Young and Khalsa team up to provide a substantial rhythm section for these numbers. Their energy is felt in every song. When you take that combination with the striding, boogy, bluesy piano of Byrd and drop in four premium horns on top, well, you have a good formula for reproducing the Ray Charles formula. Lea Gilmore's vocals were icing on the cake for me. You could not do a tribute to Ray Charles and not put a powerful woman into the equation, so Gilmore completes the recipe.
All the elements are there, great titles, solid arrangements, all the right instruments, a voice or two, and some superb execution. "Brother Ray" keeps it all alive. The Eric Byrd Trio has been Ambassadors of music before, and they are again. They represent the finest that Ray Charles represented. If you are a Ray Charles fan, this CD will make you an Eric Byrd Trio fan.