Judge Kerry Birmingham must prove, once and for all, that Willie Nelson and Wynton Marsalis are two different people.
"The Blues runs through anything that's good in American music. If it's good, it's got Blues in it."—Wynton Marsalis
If there's been any more surprising or welcome late-career musical renaissance of an artist, it's hard to top that of Willie Nelson. From his nadir as the butt of tax-evasion jokes in the early '90s, Nelson has rebounded into an elder statesman of country music (and the butt of pot-smoking jokes). Enjoying a cross-genre renaissance rivaled only by the late Johnny Cash (alas), Nelson's established himself as a go-to musician for any number of suprising collaborators, and not just the usual suspects of country music.
Enter trumpeter Wynton Marsalis, himself a legend in his genre and an accomplished student of his form. More commonly identified with jazz, Marsalis is just chameleonic as Nelson, blending his form in unexpected but familiar ways. Naturally, bringing a country musician and a jazz musician results in…the Blues? Spinning out of a 2003 concert at the Apollo where the two briefly shared the stage, Live from Jazz at Lincoln Center is culled from a two-night stint in 2007 where the two, with their combined backing bands, tackled an eclectic mix of material from originals to covers with a distinctive bluesy tint.
Interspersed with interview footage and shots of a rainy, blustery New York City at night, Nelson and Marsalis take their sweet time easing their way through a diverse set of Blues-infected tunes that run through country to New Orleans jazz to Gospel. While a complete concert might have been preferable, the track selection released here in a nice package by Eagle Rock is a diverse and musically sound sampling. Enjoying an easy onstage rapport, the duo indulge their inner bluesmen on Nelson's own "Rainy Day Blues" and "Stardust," while giving tender treatment to Hoagy Carmichael's "Georgia On My Mind," sparely sung by Nelson. The duo pay tribute to Duke Ellington on the swinging Duke Ellington number "Don't Get Around Much Anymore," then return to Carmichael with the wistful "Stardust." Marsalis and Nelson trade vocals on playful songs like "My Bucket's Got a Hole in It," turn in a somber rendition of "Caldonia," and handle chestnuts like "Sweet Georgia Brown" and the traditional gospel of "Down by the Riverside"-all of which with a palpable amount of enthusiasm that belies the generally downbeat set list.
Through thirteen songs, the two cover a vast swath of the American musical landscape as it pertains to the Blues. If the emphasis on bringing out the Blues elements of these songs, several of which are recognizable standards, lends the performances a bit of homogeneity, the vigor of the performers and their clear attention to their craft redeem it. Nelson, as much of an icon as he's become, has never had much range, and his lack of vocal variety prevent a few numbers from soaring (notably "Georgia On My Mind"), but a full complement of capable backing musicians-notably harmonica player Mickey Raphael, drummer Ali Jackson, and, of course, Marsalis himself-keep things a lively excursion through the varied musical genres that have touched, been influenced, or outright birthed by the Blues. The pairing of Nelson and Marsalis is, on the surface, a peculiar one, but as two veteran musicians with a clear dedication to their craft and a mutual respect, it's entertaining to see these two indulge (without being overly indulgent) their love of the panoply of American music.
There are no extra features, though Phil Schaap, Jazz at Lincoln Center's
curator, provides liner notes with a brief recap of the pair's collaboration and
some relevant points on the common roots of country, jazz, and blues music.
Picture quality is decent though with some noticeable pixilation, while both the
DTS and Dolby 5.1 sound options offer a rich, warm mix that gives each track
that concert hall feel.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Eagle Rock Entertainment
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