The video record of the January 2007 concerts combining Wynton Marsalis and Willie Nelson is simply beautiful. Taking place in the Allen Room of Frederick P. Rose Hall, Jazz at Lincoln Center’s palace to the great American art form, these concerts overlook the nighttime traffic of midtown Manhattan. Cars and busses plow through the night, creating a red-and-white smear of light through the two-story wall of windows that form the backdrop for the stage.
In front of that majestic urban scene, you expect to see the Wynton Marsalis Quintet, in their expensive suits, playing brass in front of a limousine of a rhythm section. You don’t expect to see a cowboy hat. Or a beat up acoustic guitar and a set of grey-white pigtails to the left and right of a snowy beard. And you don’t expect to see them together.
But it is for the betterment of both Willie Nelson and Wynton Marsalis that the two got together to play the blues, in whatever setting. Wynton’s great weakness, as jazz fans know, is a certain overblown pretense—a tendency to take himself and everything about his art too seriously. Willie Nelson is also a great artist, but his concerts can feel like casual picnics—so loose that some of the art’s power is sapped. Together, the balance is something special.
Here is a top jazz quintet: the leader’s invincible trumpet, testifying through a variety of mutes or growling with authentic feeling; Walter Blanding playing saxophone with grand power and harmonic subtlety; Dan Nimmer playing piano that sweeps from rags to Teddy Wilson to Bill Evans but not without barrelhouse grooving; Carlos Henriquez, a woodsy anchor on bass violin; Ali Jackson equally adept on brushes-n-snare or just tambourine or the whole kit swinging like mad. But then there is a harmonica player, Mickey Raphael, sounding just like a train one minute and like an alto sax the next. And then Willie Nelson: not changed at all in this context, absolutely himself, but elevated because is backed by a band capable of just about anything, and he himself plucking out harmonically interesting guitar solos.
The repertoire for this concert is mainly blues, the great through-line of American music—the very connective tissue between “country” and “jazz” and everything in between. Wynton and Willie play straight twelve-bar material like “Rainy Day Blues” and “Bright Lights, Big City”, but they also play jump blues (“Caldonia”), country blues (“That’s All” by Merle Travis), modified blues (“Aint’ Nobody’s Business If I Do”), gospel blues (“Down by the Riverside”) and blues-drenched standards (“Georgia on My Mind”). The other material fits in just fine: a “Stardust” that puts Willie Nelson in the lineage with Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington’s “Don’t Get Around Much Any More”, a super-fast “Sweet Georgia Brown”.
A casual viewer should respond to the fun here. It’s truly a joyous concert, with clapping and standing and laughing. Willie’s vocals are, of course, beyond any one style. He sings with so little drama, with such casual intimacy, that the connection to the lyrics and to the rhythmic placement of the syllables is enhanced. The audience hangs on every note.
But it’s also true that Marsalis has lavished great artistry on the arrangement of every tune. In between a few of the tunes, snippets of rehearsal are included, with Marsalis specifying the rhythmic feelings and accents. And each tune is enhanced not only by expressive solos by the jazz players but also by perfectly calibrated horn arrangements. Marsalis arrays the two voices every which way—turning the few chords that make up most blues tunes into tiny symphonies of riffs and runs, licks and runs. The blues, in fact, can be as complex as any form in music. In the right hands.
When the whole band is rocking on “Caldonia”, you know you’re in the right hands. When Wynton joins Willie on vocals for “Ain’t Nobody’s Business” the feeling in the whole room is plain: enjoyment. Every time Blanding picks up his tenor, the rhythm section turns it up a few notches, as his sound is pure brawn. And all of Wynton’s solos are animated by a combination of musical logic and guttural drive. On “That’s All”, the leader—probably the most technically proficient trumpeter in history—plays a solo consisting of a single note, held for eleven bars but with a thrilling use of a derby mute and then a resulting strangled downward run. The whole band cracks up in pleasure.
There aren’t any special features on this DVD, but who needs them? There are a few quick interview segments interspersed with the music—Willie talking about his harmonica player, Mickey Raphael; Wynton explaining the ubiquity of the blues or talking about how much he values the authenticity of Nelson; Nelson expressing his awe at the ability of the quintet; and Wynton providing an impromptu lesson in how two-beat country or gospel morphs into driving swing in a blink.
In the case of Wynton Marsalis and Willie Nelson playing the blues in the heart of downtown Manhattan, the music alone is more than enough.