Country giant meets jazz acolyte meets the blues...
Music is one of the few things left in life where it is still possible to either truly improvise or simply explore new directions. And while this unlikely meeting of brilliant jazz musician Wynton Marsalis and his band with Country icon Willie Nelson and his harp player Micky Raphael, doesn't offer anything new, it's an interesting pairing that works well because of the common currency of the blues and outright mutual respect of the two main featured musicians.
Think back to 1930 when the yodelling country blues singer Jimmy Rogers recorded Louis Armstong and you have the blueprint, but it's taken an awful long time for such a meeting of styles to come round again. Perhaps as Wynton explains it's his 'genuine love and respect for Willie' that provides the key to the project. Marsalis is after all at the top of his game, a musical genius who as he says himself is not given to boosting others. But in Willie Nelson he finds to be a rare character with 'love', integrity' who is - above all - 'real' and the meeting of Louisiana and with Texas sensibilities works surprisingly well.
Of course you might expect such plaudits in a superbly filmed DVD that includes cut away interviews and nicely edited snippets of rehearsals. But there's a joy de vivre to the project that carries it above the merely professional.
Marsalis also talks us through the way blues is at the roots of just about all forms of popular music, tracing its pervading influence in jazz and country and back to the source again. All this is well and good, but the truth is that Willie Nelson is in the autumn of his career and it is the way Marsalis and band get the best out of him that makes this project so impressive.
In short Nelson is a singer for who little is more. His phrasing is to say the least idiosyncratic until you realise he's often singing, growling of just basically phrasing ahead of the beat, but his mode of delivery is such that he bring fresh life to a series of standards.
That said it's curious that perhaps he reserves his most introspective performance for his best blues song 'Night Life'. But Marsalis and band keep up the tempo with Marsalis adding some superb trumpet on Jimmy Reed's 'Bright Lights Big City' while the band excels on 'Basin Street Blues, with Willie further growling out his parts.
In the short interview segments, Wynton also explains 'Willie is unpredictable and that's what you prize as an improviser' 'an improviser' and further adds 'when you see us laugh, it because he's unusual'. For his part Nelson calls Marsalis 'a genius, he can play anything...', and by degrees the two mutually respective musicians bring out the best in each other.
The band jumps impressively on both a cover of Louis Jordan's 'Caledonia' (on which Willie lives up to Wynton's billing as an improviser with an exploratory guitar intro) and the fun outing and set closer 'That's All'. Willie goes on to pick out both the Hoagy Carmichael title track from his own 1978 'Stardust' album on which he further adds more of the characteristic idiosyncratic phrasing that also colours the earlier 'Georgia on My Mind.
Not so much a musical crossover then as a respectful exploration of two musical genres conjoined by the blues, it's doubtful that anyone but Wynton Marsalis could have got this performance out of the veteran country outlaw.
Review by Pete Feenstra