Put the needle down on a copy of Soul Brothers - perhaps, the soon to be available vinyl reissue of this early Atlantic Records classic, repressed in honor of Black Music Month - and you'd be forgiven for not believing your ears.
Sure, it's five run-throughs of stellar small-combo jazz: pianos, guitar, bass, drums and saxophone, nothing odd about that. And jazz purists doubtlessly know Milt Jackson's vibraphone skills from his tenure with the Modern Jazz Quartet as well as records under his aegis as a bandleader. But...Ray Charles? The genius of soul music himself?
Yes, that's the two of them together, working the studio space on measured but gripping musical jaunts. Just the thrill of the duo coloring outside their lines is a trip. Both men were already known in their respective genres - Jackson as a cornerstone of the MJQ, Charles as the R&B master behind "Mess Around," "I've Got a Woman" and "Drown in My Own Tears." (He was still a year from crossing over to the pop charts with "What'd I Say.") But they were paying attention to each other's careers. "No more of this MJQ Mozart Society shit," Franklin allegedly told Atlantic's Nesuhi Ertegun, who produced the sessions that led to Soul Brothers. "I’m gonna play the blues with Ray.”
And Ray was enamored of Franklin's abilities. "The thing about a musician like Milt is, he's versatile," Charles told The New York Times in 1977. "He can play in the Modern Jazz Quartet, and then you can ask him to play a mess of blues or something like what they call rock and roll, and he has no problem doing that. Many of the musicians coming up today can't do all of that, and its a shame.”
The sessions for Soul Brothers - recorded over two dates in 1957 and 1958, with additional tracks released as Soul Meeting in 1961 - featured even more surprises than the initial shock of Brother Ray in full jazz mode. As legendary engineer Tom Dowd waited for Franklin's vibraphone to show up, "Milt comes walking in with a guitar on his back and says, ‘Where do I plug this thing in?’ Then Ray comes in with an alto case and he says, ‘I ain’t playing piano tonight, I’m playing sax.’" Both men primarily stuck to pianos and keyboards for the sessions, but it's that anything goes spirit that makes the record a winner.
If you're in the mood for a different kind of sound on LP, Soul Brothers may be a winner for you, too.