Music

Willie Nelson and Wynton Marsalis: Two Men with the Blues

Willie makes a jazz gig, singing blues and standards with his inimitable ease and generosity.


Willie Nelson and Wynton Marsalis

Two Men with the Blues

Label: Blue Note
US Release Date: 2008-07-08
UK Release Date: 2008-07-07
Amazon
iTunes

Fans of Willie Nelson will not be surprised to hear that Willie has cut a blues album, or that he is singing some jazz standards. Willie has always been an omnivore, a genuine American original who draws from the full breadth of the continent's musical menu.

But folks may be more surprised to hear that Wynton Marsalis -- the great jazz trumpeter, composer, and educator who has made a sideline of seeming narrow-minded about what "jazz" properly includes -- is dining across the musical spectrum. But here we have it, a concert organized by Marsalis's "Jazz at Lincoln Center" featuring the trumpeter's quintet and Willie Nelson (plus Nelson's trusty mouth-harpsman Mickey Raphael). Originally titled "Willie Nelson Sings the Blues", the concert pits Marsalis's extraordinary jazz group against Nelson's gorgeously laconic sense of time. The result is close to sublime.

To jazz musicians, the blues is a complex matter of musicology, form, theory, arrangement, and feeling. The blues you might hear at a Willie Nelson concert is likely to be more straightforward: three chords and essential pulse. What happened in this January 2007 concert in New York's Allen Room, then, is a meeting between complexity and clarity. From both sides, however, there is sophistication. Willie Nelson knows this material as well as the jazz group, but he knows it a bit differently, and the contrast is good for everyone.

The Marsalis group is a supremely capable and mutable five-piece, with Walter Blanding on saxophone, Dan Nimmer on piano, Carlos Hernandez on bass, and Ali Jackson behind the drum kit. On this night, they are firm but pliant, playing ballads, jump grooves, mid-tempo arrangements, and fairly complex swing patterns in a variety of styles (often in a single tune). Because Marsalis has long helmed both a big band and a talented septet, his quintet tends to sound like a larger band, outfitted with specifically arranged parts for all five hands: written piano parts, background figures for the horns, counterpoint, trio polyrhythm. Here, they sound both more fine and more relaxed than on other recent recordings.

With Willie Nelson out front, these tricky arrangements seem that much more palatable and grooving. The opener, "Bright Lights, Big City", sets up the harmonica as a locomotive whistle while the barrelhouse horns are the chugging of steel against steel. Nelson is all relaxation as he drops the words over the twelve-bar form, with Nimmer playing like Dr. John in the gaps. The soloists don't fuss about -- they just hit it tasty and hard (including Nelson on his old acoustic guitar) until the resonant baritone returns. "Rainy Day Blues" is in a similar vein -- rollicking roadhouse blues with a serious backbeat. However snappy Marsalis's horn arrangements may be (and they're plenty snappy and wonderful), Jackson is playing real backbeat blues, the kind of thing the Marsalis band doesn't usually stoop to. And you just want to say, "Keep on bendin' down, guys."

Even more lowdown is an oom-pah, two-step version of "My Bucket's Got a Hole in It", which lets Blanding play a wailing soprano sax and gives Marsalis a nice excuse to get his Armstrong on. Nelson steps from the mic briefly to let the trumpeter sing, and it's all about as down-home as it can get. A more delicious duet comes on "Tain't Nobody's Business If I Do", which begins out in the woods, then quiets down for Nelson's way behind-the-beat lead. Marsalis's trumpet solo is witty and brilliant, leading to his modest vocal, with Nelson commenting on each line. It's a flat-out classic performance.

On the swinging material, things are also copasetic. "Night Life" is a hip eight-bar blues that starts in a past-midnight quiet and develops into shouts and cries behind Nelson's typically impassive vocal. Moving away from blues, Nelson has no trouble with either "Georgia on My Mind" or "Stardust", both of which he long-ago made a strong claim on. "Georgia" starts as piano/vocal, then becomes as smooth and sophisticated as any Big Apple nightclub could want, twisting and turning between jazz, honky-tonk, and grooving blues. That odd, whiskey-spiked feel to Nelson's voice is not the sound of a jazz singer, but the natural elasticity of the man's phrasing wills it to be jazz still. "Stardust" is less assured but more conversational, almost like Uncle Willie were telling you a hip little jazz nighttime story. Blanding plays a famous written lick in two different keys, which modulates the whole thing up for a Marsalis solo that could easily justify the cost of the whole disc. Whatever your view of Wynton, he remains a preeminent trumpeter and improviser, a guy whose musical imagination is beautifully fertile.

Two Men with the Blues makes yet another argument for jazz regularly cross-fertilizing with other sympathetic styles. Willie Nelson is thought of as a country artist, but the common ground here -- blues and American standard songs in several styles and guises -- turns out to be vast. Playing with five crack jazz musicians, to put it simply, takes the laziness out of Nelson's game. His billion-and-one gigs with his family band have become (let's be honest) somewhat formulaic, but in the Allen Room before a potentially critical jazz audience, he delivers like the all-star he could always be. And accompanying a pure individualist and plain speaker like Nelson strips the Marsalis Quintet of its preciousness. Here, Marsalis and company sound natural, loose, gritty, and certainly inspired.

So, hats off to Blue Note for catching "Willie Nelson Sings the Blues" on tape and getting it before the world. Willie Nelson and Wynton Marsalis are national treasures, and the argument made by their collaboration is simply this: the blues is America -- our suffering and our redemption and our grace. It flows through all our music, and it flows with something bigger than any one style or any one musician. But Willie Nelson and Wynton Marsalis are, at minimum, the men who can tell us this with clarity.

We are well advised to listen up.

9

Music

Books

Film

Recent
Culture

Plattetopia: The Prefabrication of Utopia in East Berlin

With the fall of the Berlin Wall came the licence to take a wrecking ball to its nightmare of repression. But there began the unwritten violence of Die Wende, the peaceful revolution that hides the Oedipal violence of one order killing another.

Music

Electrosoul's Flõstate Find "Home Ground" on Stunning Song (premiere)

Flõstate are an electrosoul duo comprised of producer MKSTN and singer-songwriter Avery Florence that create a mesmerizing downtempo number with "Home Ground".

Music

Orchestra Baobab Celebrate 50 Years with Vinyl of '​Specialist in All Styles'

As Orchestra Baobab turn 50, their comeback album Specialist in All Styles gets a vinyl reissue.

Music

Hot Chip Stay Up for 'Late Night Tales'

Hot Chip's contribution to the perennial compilation project Late Night Tales is a mixed bag, but its high points are consistent with the band's excellence.

Music

The Budos Band Call for Action on "The Wrangler" (premiere)

The Budos Band call on their fans for action with the powerful new track "The Wrangler" that falls somewhere between '60s spy thriller soundtrack and '70s Ethiojazz.

Music

Creature Comfort's "Woke Up Drunk" Ruminates on Our Second-Guesses (premiere)

A deep reflection on breaking up, Nashville indie rock/Americana outfit Creature Comfort's "Woke Up Drunk" is the most personal track from their new album, Home Team.

Books

For Don DeLillo, 'The Silence' Is Deafening

In Don DeLillo's latest novel, The Silence, it is much like our post-pandemic life -- everything changed but nothing happened. Are we listening?

Music

Brett Newski Plays Slacker Prankster on "What Are You Smoking?" (premiere)

Is social distancing something we've been doing, unwittingly, all along? Brett Newski pulls some pranks, raises some questions in "What Are You Smoking?".

Music

Becky Warren Shares "Good Luck" and Discusses Music and Depression (premiere + interview)

Becky Warren finds slivers of humor while addressing depression for the third time in as many solo concept albums, but now the daring artist is turning the focus on herself in a fight against a frightful foe.

Music

Fleet Foxes Take a Trip to the 'Shore'

On Shore, Fleet Foxes consist mostly of founding member Robin Pecknold. Recording with a band in the age of COVID-19 can be difficult. It was just time to make this record this way.

Film

What 'O Brother, Where Art Thou?' Gets Right (and Wrong) About America

Telling the tale of the cyclops through the lens of high and low culture, in O'Brother, Where Art Thou? the Coens hammer home a fatalistic criticism about the ways that commerce, violence, and cosmetic Christianity prevail in American society .

Books

'We're Not Here to Entertain' Is Not Here to Break the Cycle of Punk's Failures

Even as it irritates me, Kevin Mattson's We're Not Here to Entertain is worth reading because it has so much direct relevance to American punks operating today.

Film

Uncensored 'Native Son' (1951) Is True to Richard Wright's Work

Compared to the two film versions of Native Son in more recent times, the 1951 version more acutely captures the race-driven existential dread at the heart of Richard Wright's masterwork.

Music

3 Pairs of Boots Celebrate Wandering on "Everywhere I Go" (premiere)

3 Pairs of Boots are releasing Long Rider in January 2021. The record demonstrates the pair's unmistakable chemistry and honing of their Americana-driven sound, as evidenced by the single, "Everywhere I Go".

Books

'World War 3 Illustrated #51: The World We Are Fighting For'

World War 3 Illustrated #51 displays an eclectic range of artists united in their call to save democracy from rising fascism.

Music

Tiphanie Doucet's "You and I" Is an Exercise in Pastoral Poignancy (premiere)

French singer-songwriter Tiphanie Doucet gives a glimpse of her upcoming EP, Painted Blue, via the sublimely sentimental ode, "You and I".

Music

PM Picks Playlist 3: WEIRDO, Psychobuildings, Lili Pistorius

PopMatters Picks Playlist features the electropop of WEIRDO, Brooklyn chillwavers Psychobuildings, the clever alt-pop of Lili Pistorius, visceral post-punk from Sapphire Blues, Team Solo's ska-pop confection, and dubby beats from Ink Project.

By the Book

The Story of Life in 10 1/2 Species (excerpt)

If an alien visitor were to collect ten souvenir life forms to represent life on earth, which would they be? This excerpt of Marianne Taylor's The Story of Life in 10 and a Half Species explores in text and photos the tiny but powerful earthling, the virus.

Marianne Taylor

Reviews
Collapse Expand Reviews



Features
Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.