Apr 10, 2011
Willie Nelson and Wynton Marsalis had so much fun with their previous collaboration; they decided to come back for more. Two Men With the Blues, recorded in concert at the Allen Room at Lincoln Center in 2007 was a wonderful give and take between two bona fide legends, as members from both of their bands (particularly Willie’s harmonica player Mickey Raphael) worked their respective magic on jazz tunes like “Basin Street Blues “ and country classics like Nelson’s “Night Life”. Two year later, they reunited to present a salute to their mutual idol, Ray Charles.
Here We Go Again: Celebrating the Music of Ray Charles also recorded in concert, brings Norah Jones along to make a happy threesome. Both Nelson and Ms. Jones recorded duets with Brother Ray on his final album, the Grammy winning Genius Loves Company. Now the two singers dip into the Charles songbook for what is being called “a song cycle about the ups and downs of love”.
Marsalis has wisely chosen to rearrange the familiar tunes in subtle ways; “Unchain My Heart” has a Latin feel, “Hit the Road, Jack” a gospel swing. “Cryin’ Time” has a New Orleans-style ending. The band cooks or purrs, with saxophonist Walter Blanding the star of the show, particularly when he lets loose on “Unchain My Heart”.
Nelson is more than up to the task when he is called upon to sing the blues on “Losing Hard”, and his quavering tenor works well on the ballads. Norah Jones is not really up to his standards, but on the title track (which she once sang with Charles) she shows that when she gets the right material and arrangement, she can shine. On "Makin' Whoopee", she seems a bit out of her league.
I should quickly point out that as much fun as this all is – and it is a blast at times – there are better jazz tributes to Charles, most recently by John Scofield. Other than Marsalis’ muted trumpet solos and Blanding’s runs, there isn’t much in the way of improvisation here, but rather a formal resetting of memorable tunes. And that ain’t bad; it just ain’t as jazzy as it could be.
Wynton is a busy boy these days. In additional to his duties at Lincoln Center, and as a performer, he will launch a two-year performance and lecture series at Harvard on April 28, with an appearance at Sanders Theatre. His lecture/performance on April 28 is titled "Music as Metaphor" and will feature Ali Jackson (drums), Dan Nimmer (piano), Walter Blanding Jr. (tenor sax), Carlos Henriquez (bass), James Chirillo (guitar and banjo) and Mark O'Connor (violin). The following day, Marsalis will teach a master class to high school musicians at Cambridge Rindge and Latin School.
Marsalis' lecture performance at Sanders Theatre will be free of
charge, and will become available for the Harvard community on
Tuesday, April 12, and to the general public on Thursday, April 14.
Information on obtaining tickets can be found at http://ofa.fas.harvard.edu/boxoffice/. <http://ofa.fas.harvard.edu/boxoffice/>