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Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Two Men with the Blues

I've been spinning this disc on my car CD player for a couple of weeks now, fascinated by the juxtaposition of Willie Nelson's voice and the tight band lead by Wynton Marsalis.

Now I've read a great mention of it at Here's a snippet of that long review of a book on Willie:

Two-step stomps, songs with jazzy harmonies, and liberal group improvisation–the stuff of western swing–remain hallmarks of Nelson’s style to this day, and the natural ease of a lifetime steeped in the music informs Nelson’s most recent CD release, Two Men with the Blues, a fantastic live collaboration between Nelson (with his harmonica player Mickey Rafael) and Wynton Marsalis’ Jazz at Lincoln Center quintet captured by Blue Note records.

The repertoire is a mix of Nelson classics (Night Life, Rainy Day Blues), Hoagy Carmichael tunes (Georgia, Star Dust–Carmichael has no greater living interpreter than Nelson) and blues of varied provenance (like Basin Street Bluesfamously recorded by Willis among a million others). Wynton Marsalis’ cultivated devotion to prewar jazz allows the music here to fit Willie like a custom cut Brioni suit. There’s no chance of that Willie’s improvised, off the beat phrasing could throw this crew, and Willie responds with his jazziest vocal performance on record, rarely singing a melody straight. Willie’s guitar solos are wonderful here too, although, truth be told, at 75 and suffering from carpal tunnel syndrome after decades on the road, Willie’s not the guitarist he used to be and there are plenty of better examples of his chronically underrated guitar soloing elsewhere in the Nelson discography. Pianist Dan Nimmer is a stand out here. At 25, he’s already a monster, proving himself a brilliant vocal accompanist AND a great soloist.

The CD’s best performance comes on My Bucket’s Got a Hole in It–an early jazz staple written by pioneering New Orleans pianist Clarence Williams and recorded by both Louis Armstrong (who got early work as a Williams sideman) and Hank Williams. Not only do Willie and Wynton clown their way through great vocal performances, but the band plays remarkably well–comfortable with the old-time beat. Drummer Ali Jackson plays one of the best drum solos I’ve ever heard, a break so melodic you can just about sing along with it.

In a promo video prepared for the CD release Willie said: “Labels were invented to sell the music. You had to know what to call it before you could sell it so they called the blues the blues, and jazz is jazz, bluegrass, gospel, whatever. But some music encompasses it all. So what do you call that? And that’s pretty much what I like to play.” Mission accomplished.

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