01/15/07

Willie Nelson Meets Wynton Marsalis

The timeless allure of the blues was the common denominator that bonded Willie Nelson and the "Crazy"-like-a-fox Wynton Marsalis when the two American music icons shared the stage Friday and Saturday in Jazz at Lincoln Center's elegant-yet-earthy Allen Room.

Their repertoire, which drew stylistically from Kansas City and Memphis to Marsalis' proud-but-battered hometown of New Orleans and Nelson's beloved Texas, was airy yet intimate. So was the setting for the first of Saturday's two performances, one of four sold-out shows presented over the weekend in the same venue by this unlikely duo. With its panoramic view of Columbus Circle, Central Park and Manhattan's nighttime skyline, it was hard to imagine a more stunning backdrop for the concert's opening number, "Bright Lights, Big City."

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Danny Clinch

Wynton Marsalis with Willie Nelson

The Jimmy Reed-penned blues chestnut was delivered at a rollicking tempo that suited Marsalis and his quintet better than Nelson, who has historically favored more relaxed meters for his wonderfully understated, molasses-dipped vocals. Then again, what sometimes made this pairing so fascinating was not how well the evening's two stars could mesh, but what happened when they didn't. (Highlights from the four concerts will be broadcast Jan. 26 on XM satellite radio's "Willie's Place" and "Real Jazz" channels.)

The only country-music artist to ever have a song named after him by Miles Davis, Nelson fared especially well when performing "Georgia on My Mind" and "Night Life," which have been staples of his concerts for decades. But things got really interesting when he bravely ventured beyond his comfort zone with such classics as "Basin Street Blues," "Caldonia" and "Don't Get Around Much Anymore." His singing here was less mellifluous, his phrasing more staccato and lacking in the sublime inflections and putty-like phrasing that are his trademarks.

This may have been because Nelson, 73, is less conversant with these songs on stage—or, perhaps, because Marsalis, 45, and his group of young lions performed with far greater melodic and rhythmic precision than Nelson is used to from his loosey-goosey band. Likewise, his acoustic guitar solos during the first three selections were so rushed and mistake-riddled that they received no applause from the jazz-savvy audience.

Yet, there was something strangely appealing about hearing Nelson play a series of wince-inducing clams on his battered Martin guitar as Marsalis and his ace group—pianist Dan Nimmer, saxophonist Walter Blanding, bassist Carlos Henriquez and drum dynamo Ali Jackson—performed behind him with exquisite élan and note-perfect accuracy. This was undoubtedly the classiest accompaniment Nelson has received in many a year, which may be why he wore a black suit over his customary T-shirt. (All of the other musicians, including Nelson's longtime harmonica player, the unbilled Mickey Raphael, were attired in dapper suits and ties.)

The aesthetic differences fell by the wayside on Nelson's "Rainy Day Blues," which featured a snappy shuffle beat that inspired some of his most authoritative singing of the night. Equally inspired was Merle Travis' "That's All," a rollicking backwoods rave-up that may well be the closest Marsalis has ever come to playing rock 'n' roll, and a wonderfully relaxed version of "Ain't Nobody's Business," which found the concert's two stars slyly trading vocals.

"The good lord gave me a mind, and I can drink as much as I like—or smoke," Marsalis playfully sang. This ad-libbed lyrical allusion to Nelson's well-documented fondness for marijuana drew chuckles from the crowd, and an enthusiastic "Yeah!" from Nelson. The banter continued during the spoken introduction to Hank Williams' "My Bucket's Got a Hole In It," a song greatly enhanced by Jackson's strutting second-line drumming, Blanding’s short-but-ebullient solo on a curved soprano saxophone, and Marsalis' wry vocal quotations from “I Hear You Knocking,” a 1955 New Orleans R&B gem first recorded by Smiley Lewis.

"We had to show Texans what to do with catfish—they used it for bait," the Big Easy-bred trumpet star said before the song began. "Works for me," the Stetson-wearing Nelson retorted, adding: "I like the way they suck the (fish) eyes out in Louisiana. That's the real thing."

The concert concluded with the gospel staple "Down by the Riverside," which was made all the more potent by Nelson's admirably restrained delivery during a song that is usually belted with vigor. Sometimes the softest voice speaks the loudest, even in a brassy setting like this.

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