July 8, 2008


REVIEW: Willie Nelson & Wynton Marsalis, Two Men With The Blues (Michael Quinn, 02 July 2008, BBC)

Let's cut to the chase: this is phenomenal music made to seem all the more astonishing for being delivered with such consummate ease that it sounds almost casually thrown off.

In early 2007 two of contemporary American music's greatest icons, jazz trumpeter and composer Wynton Marsalis and country music legend Willie Nelson, teamed up for a couple of unforgettable nights at New York's Lincoln Center.

The souvenir from those evenings proves to be one of those rare recordings that leaves you simultaneously exhilarated at having eavesdropped on two magnificent musicians working in perfect harmony, and devastated at not having been there in person.

Two Men With The Blues may well be one of the greatest live albums ever made. It crowns Nelson as one of the most charismatic performers of his generation and underlines the incredible virtuosity of Marsalis in a value-for-money collection of classic Blues standards.

Marsalis & Nelson Meet in a Bluesy Middle (WILL FRIEDWALD | July 7, 2008, NY Sun)

In the 1950s, there wasn't much talk about the intersection of jazz, which was becoming increasingly academic, and country, which was becoming increasingly mainstream. Northern and urban listeners had experienced little contact with the Western swing bands of a generation earlier, most famously that of Bob Wills, which adroitly combined country and jazz; fewer still knew of Charlie Parker's assertion that he loved to "listen to the stories" that he heard in the great country songs.

Armstrong himself later "covered" several hits by Hank Williams, including "Cold, Cold Heart." Eventually, someone asked the trumpeter directly about the Jimmie Rodgers "Blue Yodel No. 9" and he confirmed that it was him — as if there could be any doubt. Ten months before his death in 1971, Armstrong revisited "Blue Yodel" in the company of Cash, the country-music industry leader of the day, on an episode of Cash's TV variety show (which has recently been released on DVD by Sony Music Legacy). Armstrong's doctor had ordered him to give up playing the trumpet, so this duet marks one of his last known solos on the instrument. Cash can't yodel like Rodgers, but no matter, he makes yodelicious moaning noises while Armstrong puts down his horn and scats along with him.

As with Armstrong and Cash, duets are par for the course for Willie Nelson, who must be the only artist to have recorded with Frank Sinatra, Dolly Parton, Bob Dylan, Ray Charles, and Julio Iglesias. He also is no redheaded stranger to jazz trumpeters: In 1970, Miles Davis named a song in his honor, which was especially remarkable at the time since Mr. Nelson wasn't yet a national "crossover" name and was still pretty much known only in Nashville. Seventeen years later, Mr. Nelson guest-starred with former Charles Mingus brassman Jack Walwrath on a Blue Note album.

As the title of the new album indicates, and as Armstrong, Rodgers, and Cash all knew well: The blues are the common ground where Messrs. Marsalis's and Nelson's idioms meet. "Two Men With the Blues," which was recorded during four performances in January 2007 at the Allen Room in Jazz at Lincoln Center, includes myriad variations on the classic blues form, starting with Jimmy Reed's "Bright Lights, Big City" and the early jazz perennial "Basin Street Blues." On the bouncier "Ain't Nobody's Business," Messrs. Nelson and Marsalis follow Bessie Smith's treatment of the folk theme (rather than that of Mississippi John Hurt). Mr. Nelson also volunteers an older original of his in the basic 12-bar mold, "Rainy Day Blues."

As with the earlier country-jazz hybrids, which occasionally found Rodgers struggling to find his rhythm in Armstrong's jazzy riffs, the most difficult feat for the current duo is finding a compatible cadence; the only time Messrs. Nelson and Marsalis fail to do so is on "Caldonia," a fast novelty blues by Louis Jordan.

Posted by Orrin Judd at July 8, 2008 8:03 AM
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