Pop Life

Eyeballin': Willie Nelson & Wynton Marsalis' Live from Jazz at Lincoln Center New York City

Associated Press

Willie Nelson has had some odd musical partners over the years: Snoop Dogg, Gonzo the Muppet, Julio Iglesias. But the Red Headed Stranger's live-recorded CD collaboration with Wynton Marsalis, Two Men with the Blues, and now this unwieldy-titled concert DVD, is not only seamless, it’s as if the grizzled outlaw singer and sleek-suited NYC-via-N’awlins jazzbo are musical soulmates.

That’s quite evident here, be it in the exchanged smiles while on stage or in the intercutted interviews between the two men. “With Wynton and these guys, it brings it up to a whole new level,” Willie says. And at 75, Willie approaches the project as if he’s still got plenty left to show his audience.

Nelson, of course, has always infused a bit of jazz and blues into his music. From his admiration of Django Reinhardt, to the inclusion of ‘30s and ‘40s standards in his repertoire - most notably on 1978's Stardust, deluxely reissued by Columbia/Legacy this year - to his own sometimes dark, down-and-out lyrics, he’s always appreciated those genres as much as straight country.

Filmed at Jazz at Lincoln Center's Allen Room Stage overlooking the never-sleeping city's neon and traffic, Nelson, Marsalis and their backing musicians weave in and out of standards like “Bright Lights Big City,” “ Basin Street Blues,” “ Caldonia,” and “Sweet Georgia Brown” with style and aplomb. Even on numbers that have been long Nelson-set standards – “Night Life,” “Georgia On My Mind,” “My Bucket’s Got a Hole In It” - the Texas legend infuses a spirit in his playing and singing, all too aware that these versions will make a permanent record, though as few Stardust numbers seem rushed.

For his part, trumpet man Marsalis looks like he’s having a hell of a time – dropping blorts and blasts into the fabric of the music, swinging side to side and occasionally singing. A lot of credit also has to go to the backing band – harmonica player Mickey Raphael from Willie’s crew, and Marsalis collaborators Dan Nimmer (piano), Carlos Henriquez (bass), Ali Jackson (drums) and Walter Blanding (saxophone). Each man, in true jazz/blues tradition, gets plenty of space to solo and explore his instrument.

This genre-blending combo is not without precedent – Louis Armstrong and Jimmie Rodgers teamed up a bit in the ‘30s. And this concert is definitely not for fans of Wilie's rowdier side. But as a mellow and warm document of a unique and interesting collaboration, it’s a fine release. Can’t wait for that Willie/System of a Down pairing next. - Bob Ruggiero

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Bob Ruggiero has been writing about music, books, visual arts and entertainment for the Houston Press since 1997, with an emphasis on classic rock. He used to have an incredible and luxurious mullet in college as well. He is the author of the band biography Slippin’ Out of Darkness: The Story of WAR.
Contact: Bob Ruggiero