Willie Nelson and Wynton Marsalis, “Two Men With the Blues”

A country music icon teaming up with a jazz icon would seem to most to be an even stranger pairing than, say, a heavy metal icon with a bluegrass icon. But followers of both Willie Nelson and Wynton Marsalis would know that there’s hardly anything unnatural about these two teaming up to make music together.

The red-headed stranger, however, is no stranger to the blues. Willie Nelson even made all-out blues record with 2000’s Milk Cow Blues, and most of the songs were rendered in the graceful, blues-jazz style of Bessie Smith — or more recently, Eddie “Cleanhead” Vinson. Better yet, go back to 1978 and his landmark re-imaginings of classic jazz standards on Stardust. Nelson even guested on a Herb Ellis record saluting Western swing as a session guitarist without sounding out of place.

Wynton Marsalis, on the other hand, has long been a keeper of the flame of old-timey jazz, including music from when the lines between jazz and blues were still blurry. He adores the same old classic tunes that Willie Nelson does, and loves to render these songs with a strong sense of swing that strangely fits well with Nelson’s nasally, singular vocal delivery.

Captured live over a two-night gig at the Lincoln Center, their collaboration Two Men With the Blues arrived on July 8, 2008. It was the perfect setting. There were great acoustics, and no studio rehearsal was needed to play songs these guys know so well, anyway. Wynton Marsalis’ band was supple, tighter than a drum and swung as hard as Count Basie when called upon. Willie Nelson, meanwhile, gaves them plenty of space to strut their stuff, too.

At the same time, the old cowboy was in charge of things, delivering his lines stubbornly his own relaxed, slightly melancholy way, but then again, his own way usually transcends whatever setting is presented to him. By the way, if you liked “Rainy Day Blues” and “Ain’t Nobody’s Business” from Milk Cow Blues, wait until you hear it with Marsalis and his crack band backing Nelson up. Moreover, if “My Bucket’s Got a Hole In It” doesn’t make you nod and grin, you’re lacking a pulse.

I’m not one to run out and snap up everything either Willie Nelson and Wynton Marsalis puts out, but Two Men With the Blues, a collaboration between two national treasures, was special. They brought out the best of each other, solidifying the icon status that each has earned so many years ago.

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