CD Review of Two Men with the Blues by Willie Nelson & Wynton Marsalis
Recommended if you like
Duke Ellington, Ray Charles,
Jazz at Lincoln Center
Blue Note
Willie Nelson &
Wynton Marsalis:
Two Men with the Blues

Reviewed by Michael Fortes


illie Nelson and Wynton Marsalis? It’s novel, and kind of unexpected, though not really. But all the same, it’s true – the long-haired, pot-smoking granddaddy of country music and the dapper, conservative curator of American jazz pre-1965 really did make music together, if only for one night. And let’s get this one minor quibble out of the way: the title of this set is a tad misleading. After all, Willie and Wynton have both been wildly successful in their respective genres. If anything, these two guys sound happy as pigs in shit playing this set of 10 standards!

Recorded live at New York City’s Lincoln Center on January 12 and 13, 2007, the album finds the Wynton Marsalis quintet – Walter Blanding on sax, Dan Nimmer at the piano, Carlos Henriquez playing bass, Ali Jackson on drums, and Marsalis himself playing trumpet – quite jovial and at ease playing alongside Willie and his harmonica player, Mickey Raphael.

“Listen to the blues they’re playing,” sings Willie in his classic “Night Life.” And at that line, it’s a cue for Wynton to wail a dramatic cry on his plungered trumpet. It’s a song that was begging for a jazz treatment, and here it is. Willie even gets some solo space with his guitar, and while his leads in the slow-walking “Night Life” are typically clunky in that patented Willie Nelson way, he rises to a more graceful execution in the band’s short but swingin’ rendition of “Caldonia.” By “Basin Street Blues,” which symbolizes the historically color-blind nature of so many musicians with its line “where the light and the dark folks meet,” his leads are sounding even more seamless and graceful.

Cementing Willie and Wynton’s onstage camaraderie are the two vocal duets, “My Bucket’s Got a Hole In It” and “Ain’t Nobody’s Business.” As a singer, Wynton has a laid back, effortless baritone, almost like Allen Toussaint or Fats Domino. It’s the sound of New Orleans, and it’s a righteous foil for Willie, as he eggs on Wynton with curt responses to his vocal lines.

Decades ago, Willie had already recorded well-received versions of “Stardust” and “Georgia On My Mind,” the two most obvious reasons in the program why this union is not entirely unexpected. These two songs transcend labels like “jazz,” “pop,” “country,” or whatever anyone chooses to call the sounds associated with them. In the end, Willie and Wynton are tied together through not just their shared experience with these songs, but with the blues itself. Granted, the form may be taking precedent over the feeling at this stage in their careers, and the “museum music” tag that Miles Davis gave to jazz when he declared the music dead in the 1970s may be as relevant here as it is to any of Wynton’s (or Willie’s, for that matter) other exercises in retrospection, but this can be said, without a doubt: the good vibes, the fun emanating from the stage and reflected back in small but noticeable doses from the audience, and the freewheeling spirit that Willie adds to the proceedings, makes this one of the most enjoyable Wynton Marsalis recordings in recent memory.

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