Even the most distinctive artists don't necessarily start out that way. Before John Coltrane found his voice and became one of jazz' greatest innovators, he went through periods of emulating Charlie Parker (when he played alto sax in a '40s navy band) and, after that, Dexter Gordon. Larry Young, a groundbreaking organist, emulated Jimmy Smith before he developed a distinctive modal style of organ playing. And on Genius Anthology, one is reminded that Ray Charles also made the transition from imitator to innovator. This 54-minute CD, which spans 1949-1959, contains some of the singer/pianist's earliest recordings -- and for the serious Charles enthusiast, it's downright fascinating to hear what he sounded like in 1949 and 1950. At that point, Charles was still searching for his voice and was greatly influenced by Nat King Cole and Charles Brown; he had yet to evolve into a full-fledged soul shouter and favored a suave, cocktail-style blues-jazz approach. Stylistically, the young Charles heard on "Confession Blues" in 1949 and "See See Rider" in 1950 is closer to Cole singing "Route 66" with his trio or Brown performing "Merry Christmas, Baby" than the rock 'em/sock 'em Charles of "Hit the Road, Jack" (which isn't on this CD). But one hears that tougher, more hard-edged Charles emerging on 1951's "Kissa Me Baby" and 1953's "Heartbreaker," and he is totally distinctive on 1958's "You Be My Baby" as well as the 1959 hits "I'm Moving On" (a song by country great Hank Snow) and "What'd I Say." Despite the presence of some major hits, this CD is not meant to be a best-of; most of the material, although pleasing, falls short of essential. But for hardcore collectors, Genius Anthology takes an intriguing, enjoyable look at Charles' formative years.
AllMusic Review by Alex Henderson