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.