Every other 2008 album released, from those already out to those awaiting a future Tuesday, are officially put on notice that Two Men With The Blues is in the running for the best of the year. Sure, it’s not an even playing field since it features Willie Nelson and Wynton Marsalis, two of the greatest musicians in their field brought together by their shared love of blues and jazz standards, but no one said life was fair.
Over two nights in January 2007, Jazz at Lincoln Center presented an amazing evening of music entitled “Willie Nelson Sings the Blues.” Nelson brought along harmonica player Mickey Raphael to join Marsalis and his quartet: pianist Dan Nimmer, bassist Carlos Henriquez, drummer Ali Jackson, and saxophonist Walter Blanding. Those of us who were not lucky enough to get into The Allen Room can now bask in the magic.
The disc opens with Jimmy Reed’s “Bright Lights Big City,” a perfect choice for the former Abbott, Texas resident as he plays the Big City. Raphael and Marsalis trade solos, each capturing elements of the story. Marsalis explains, “Mickey is the sound of the train…and we’re like the car horns.” After they trade leads on the bridge, the sax takes a turn. Then the piano steps out from the rhythm section before coming around to Nelson’s guitar, bringing the story full circle.
Aside from blues and jazz standards, Nelson fans will recognize new takes on his songs. An outstanding rendition of “Night Life” shows that regardless of the fact it’s known as a country song, the lyrics reveal a blues song at its core. Marsalis’ trumpet rings out so sweetly in the intro, and then blows a powerful muted wail as Nelson suggests you “listen to the blues there playing.” The sax then comes in all silky and sultry. As Nelson plays the guitar on the bridge, the seamless blending with the rhythm section makes you wonder why he hasn’t always fronted a jazz band.
Nelson revisits a couple of Hoagy Carmichael numbers from his Stardust album, the title track and “Georgia On My Mind.” The tinkling piano, the brushes on the drums, and the restrained horns create a dreamy, moonlit rendition of “Stardust,” carrying the listener away on a cloud. On the bridge Marsalis comes to the forefront; his horn sounds so beautiful you want to grab your girl and dance the night away. On “Georgia,” Marsalis’ muted trumpet is very poignant, sounding like the narrator’s yearning to return back to his love.
In between these songs, we leave the big city to head south down the Mississippi to “take a trip/ to the land of dreams/floating down the river/ down to New Orleans” on “Basin Street Blues.” The harmonica and trumpet call and respond. After the rest the band completes the bridge, Willie asks, “Aren’t you glad you came with me?” to which the audience responds enthusiastically.
Clarenece Williams’ “My Bucket’s Got A Hole In It” and Grainger Porter’s “Ain’t Nobody’s Business” find Marsalis contributing vocals. He’s portrays the bartender who turns away Nelson and his bucket in the former. The song is also notable because Jackson gets his first drum solo. In terms of the latter, Nelson opens this slow blues and he and Marsalis trade solos. As Marsalis sings Willie’s offers playful asides underneath. They close out the disc with a rousing version of Merle Travis’ “That’s All.” The background vocals and the clapping audience give it a gospel feel.
Thankfully, that’s not all for these two men as they are playing occasional dates across the country and in September the DVD of their concert at Lincoln Center will be released. Their version of “Down by The Riverside” is available as a bonus track on iTunes, which I have mixed feelings about. I am glad there's more material, but since the CD is less than 54 minutes, there was plenty of room to include it.
Trailer for the DVD: