The 2007 live concert at Lincoln Center resulted in one of the most pleasurable jazz albums of the past 50 years. Fifteen years after its release, the recording sounds fresh, alive and inviting.
Was there ever a more unlikely pairing to appear at The Allen Room in the Frederick P. Rose Hall, which is the legendary Home of Jazz at Lincoln Center in New York? Wynton Marsalis was no stranger to audiences there, but to appear alongside of country star Willie Nelson must have seemed a gamble. Jazz audiences don’t normally take to country music, with perhaps the exception of Ray Charles and his surprisingly successful 1962 recording entitled Modern Sounds In Country and Western Music.
However, a closer look at the career beginnings and trajectories of both Willie and Wynton made this live recording entitled Two Men With The Blues not only feasible, but almost inevitable. Willie began his music career as a songwriter, creating several masterpieces of emotional expression, among them “Hello Walls” for Faron Young, “Funny How Time Slips Away” for Billie Walker, “Crazy” for Patsy Cline and “Pretty Paper” for Roy Orbison. His own voice and his singular nylon-string guitar easily lent it self to jazzy phrasing that made him sound like no one else.
Then there’s the matter of his 1975 album Red-Headed Stranger, which featured naught but his voice, his guitar, and his sister’s lonesome piano accompaniment. That album was initially rejected by his record company as being little more than a series of demos, but when released, went on to sell millions and be critically regarded as a major achievement. The highlight of that record was a cover of “Blue Eyes Crying In the Rain”, a 1947 hit for Roy Acuff. Clearly Willie was much than his outlaw country image that dominated the charts in the late ’70s.
As for Wynton, his New Orleans upbringing exposed him to all kinds of music, from barrelhouse boogie to Bach. And there was a beat, a swinging rhythm to his playing, that carried him from blues to jazz and back again. He has an abiding interest in American popular song and culture, and a deep love of the blues.
So is Two Men With The Blues a jazz album? Well, it opens with a Jimmy Reed number, the classic “Bright Lights Big City”, and the performance reveals a hundred sonic pleasures – Willie’s strong and confident voice, Wynton’s bluesy playing, and the superb backing of Walter Blanding on saxophone, Mickey Raphael on harmonica, and Dan Nimmer on piano, with the capable bottom end support of Carlos Henriquez on bass and Ali Jackson on drums. Jazz? – not exactly – but music-making of the highest order, definitely. There is little improvisation here, but the ensemble playing is masterful
Standout tracks on the album include Nelson’s own classic compositions”Night Life” and “Rainy Day Blues’ as well two standard from Hoagy Carmichael – “Stardust” and “Georgia On My Mind”, both of which outshine the renditions on Willie’s best-selling Stardust album from 1978.
Particularly effective is the highly-charged solo from Marsalis on the intro to “Night Life”, it alone being worth the price of admission. There isn’t a weak track on the album, though; from start to finish the performances deliver to the listener an unalloyed pleasure. The concert must have been unforgettable to the live audience lucky enough to have been been at Lincoln Center on January 12th and 13th of 2007.
The sonics on this record are superb, thanks to the faultless acoustics of The Allen Room and the team behind this outstanding Blue Note release. Highly recommended.
Willie Nelson and Wynton Marsalis ‘Two Men With The Blues’ Album Review