When Willie Nelson and Wynton Marsalis first shared the stage at New York's Allen Room for Jazz at Lincoln Center almost exactly two years ago, the concert was simply billed as "Willie Nelson Sings the Blues." There was no hint that music history was about to be made, but the pairing resulted in one of the best releases of 2008, the CD/DVD Two Men with the Blues.
For their second concert together Tuesday night, Marsalis and Nelson chose not to simply reproduce Two Men's material but instead explore the legacy of Ray Charles, cleverly sequencing the songs to tell the story of a love affair from beginning to end and beyond. The program began with "Hallelujah (Boy I Love Her So)," played with a New Orleans feel. Feeling comfortable with Marsalis' working quartet (plus harmonica player Mickey Raphael) behind him, Nelson improvised a few riffs on his battered acoustic guitar Trigger.
Dallas-raised Norah Jones then walked onstage sporting a strapless dress to duet with Nelson on "You Are My Sunshine," played almost unrecognizably with a Latinesque beat. Jones seemed quite at ease belting this standard - gone was her ballads' usual sweetness - and seemed to enjoy dirtying things a bit, while Marsalis contributed a mournful solo that contrasted with the tune's happiness.
Nelson left the stage for "Come Rain or Come Shine," as Jones ably sang lead. Arranged to fit her voice, the song was played much softer than the previous numbers, giving it more of a '50s jazz-club feel. Few noticed a minor mishap during the song: when bassist Carlos Henriquez began his solo, Jones started singing, which prompted Wynton to briefly give her a stern look while pointing to the bass player.
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One of the concert's highlights came with "Unchain My Heart," featuring extended solos from Raphael and drummer Ali Jackson. Shortly thereafter, the tempo shifted to a bolero-like beat that allowed Marsalis to exercise his creativity. Another great moment came with "Losin' Head," played at an almost funereal pace. Marsalis did a bone-tingling call-and-response with Nelson, who sang the lyrics with poignancy and drama.
Parts of the show weren't that memorable. Jones and Nelson lacked chemistry on "Here We Go Again," which Jones recorded with Ray Charles for his final CD, Genius Loves Company. There was very little vocal chemistry between Jones and Nelson, which became evident during a final harmony that just didn't gel. The same was true on "What'd I Say" - neither Nelson nor Jones seemed comfortable with the song, leaving Marsalis to steal it from them with his spirited, soulful vocals (yes, vocals - the man can sing).
The show ended with the up-tempo "That's All," the sole tune from Two Men With The Blues, which became a showcase for the band's undeniable talent - especially Jackson and Henriquez, who traded short solos for about four minutes. Saxophonist Walter Blanding, Jr. and pianist Dan Zimmer also shone throughout the night, elevating the music to greater creative heights.