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Jazz legend brings Hofstra audience to its feet

The 18th of August in Hempstead was one of those rare, unforgettable summer nights — Ray Charles, the man once described as a “testifying rock ’n’ roll preacher,” did that and more on stage at the Hofstra Arena, along with his internationally renowned 17-piece orchestra and the beautiful and rhythmic back up singers, the 5 Raeletts.

The youthful and talented Hofstra University Jazz Orchestra, lead by Dr. Dave Lalama, warmed up the audience in classic style at the arena (a cavernous performance space wrought with serious acoustic problems) with a medley of memorable tributes to Charlie Parker (Perdido), John Coletrane (Niema), and Mercer Ellington (“Things Ain’t What They Used To Be”). With the crowd now bursting with anticipation, the Ray Charles orchestra continued to bring the energy to a comfortable boil with several superb solos by a few of the ensemble’s world class instrumentalists such as Ken Sharf and Dave Hoffman on trumpet, Wayne Coniglio on Base trombone, Craig Bailey (a Brooklynite) on smoldering alto sax, and Rudolph Johnson and George Harper on tenor sax .

In a grand style befitting the reigning king of “rockin’ soul,” (he has frequently been compared to soulful artists Otis Redding, Aretha Franklin and Al Green) Ray Charles, dressed in a resplendent gold-jacketed tuxedo, was helped to his electric keyboard at center stage, where he commenced to hold court with royal flair. He magically kicked the energy level up to high burn, with soulful original compositions as only he could.

There just aren’t enough superlatives to describe what an experience this was, witnessing a musical original, blind from Glaucoma since age 7 and playing the piano since 5, as he enraptured the spirit of thousands of his fans. Charles literally mesmerized them with his magical fusion of gospel and blues by singing and playing with the energy of a man half his age, the classic compositions “Georgia On My Mind,” “Just For A Thrill,” “Chain Of Fools,” and “Hit The Road Jack,” to name a few.

Especially interesting throughout the concert was the uniquely polished, natural and varied call and response between Charles, his rhythm section, and the Raeletts. A testament to his popularity, at 70 years old — beyond the obvious electricity instilled in the audience, as they repeatedly applauded, and rocked with the tempo changes and beats — was Charles’ superbly fluid musicianship on the electric keyboards (he first experimented with the electric piano back in 1959). During Ray’s solo of “When I’ll Be Over You,” he made the instrument sing like a harpsichord and during other numbers, a slide guitar, an electric guitar and then a base guitar. All the while the audience kept applauding and swaying back and forth in their seats, almost mimicking his signature body language of a foot in the air with a mile-wide smile.

In the words of Ray Charles Robinson himself, “Night Time Is The Right Time,” so it was on this wondrous summer evening. The man with “the church voice,” 12 Grammy awards and countless chart-topping original tunes, closed his soulful sermon of songs with the memorable “Wha’ I Say.” As the lights came up in the arena, the loving fans, thousands deep, gave a heartfelt standing ovation, while Ray, true to form, spoke humbly to them: “You know how to make an old man feel good.”

Reach Qguide jazz writer Norm Harris by e-mail at timesledger@aol.com or call 229-0300, Ext. 139.

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