Willie Nelson and Wynton Marsalis: “Two Men with the Blues”
Willie Nelson is undoubtedly one of the great songwriters in all of country music– so why is it that his commercial breakthrough, Stardust, is an album of jazz standards, not original compositions? To this day, the album is not just one of Nelson’s most enduringly popular works, but also one of the clearest and most potent distillations of his many gifts, most notably his refusal to acknowledge any creative boundaries; though the songs he covers on the album might be loosely associated with jazz, the album dips into country, pop, rock, and blues in equal measure, so while it may not be a showcase for Nelson’s writing skills, it remains one of the his defining works as a song interpreter.
It also explains why Two Men with the Blues, his album-length collaboration with the great jazz trumpeter Wynton Marsalis, not only works, but works remarkably well. Nelson, of course, will duet with literally anyone and work in any idiom of pop music, but few of his collaborations are as assured, as seamless, or as delightful as this one– and it’s probably because it used his seminal Stardust album as its touchstone. It’s not just that this album finds the two veterans revisiting two of the songs from that record, it’s that the whole thing is rooted in their shared love for the Great American Songbook, and, as such, it plays both to Maralis’ traditionalist instincts as well as to Nelson’s genre-hopping eclecticism.
Recorded live at the Lincoln Center, the album finds Nelson and Marsalis working with the latter’s backing band, with Nelson’s long-time harmonica player, Mickey Raphael, in tow. And if the resulting music isn’t immediately revelatory, it is immediately charming. This is a loose, relaxed set that isn’t out to prove anything; it’s simply the sound of a group of consummate musicians enjoying each others’ company and playing the music that matters to them. And so it’s an assured and utterly warm record that finds both Nelson and Marsalis feeling comfortable with each other and with the material– enough so that the record has a a warm familiarity to it, but still manages to surprise. Nelson coaxes Marsalis to take the material in directions he might not otherwise– be it in his bluesy, blustery horn solo on “Night Life” or the cheerful swing of “Caldonia”– and Raphael brings a bit of country grit to the band’s playing, while Marsalis and his band help Nelson to relax, to stretch out with the music and give each musician room to breathe. This is music that takes its time and doesn’t ever seem like it’s in a hurry, and so even the more country-oriented numbers sound like jazz songs because of how each musician gets a chance to solo and to play off of one another.
Of course, any album culled from the Great American Songbook is prone to be a little too familiar, and so this one benefits from a couple of Nelson originals. Still, there’s no denying that this is an album of simple pleasures, one that’s important not for making a major statement but simply for allowing us to eavesdrop on two veterans cutting loose with a relaxed, gentle set of songs that plays to each of their talents without sounding quite like anything either has done before. And for that, it may not be remembered as a major record, but is is a highly enjoyable one.