Willie Nelson & Wynton Marsalis

“He’s real, man, and that’s rare.  You’ve gotta get as close to that as you can nowadays.  It’s important for your own mental being.” — Wynton Marsalis

High Times
November 2010
by Mary Ought Six

Not enough people know that the world’s most venerated stoner, country-music star Willie Nelson has made some epic excursions into the upper echelons of jazz in recent years.  In an inspired and instantly memorable collaboration, Willie teamed up with jazz-trumpet heavyweight champion Wynton Marsalis.  Not since the legendary Louis Armstrong and Jimmie Rodgers “the Father of Country Music,” hit the recording studios together back in 1930 has there been such an historic match-up between jazz horn and country warble.

Willie took time from his tour with Asleep at the Wheel to tell High Times more about these amazing sessions, which have been captured on CD and two DVDs.

“I heard that music forever, so it wasn’t a big stretch for me to say, “Hey, Wynton, let’s jam,'” he expl;ained.  After all, Nelson’s musical heritage is a rich tapestry.  “I grew up in the cotton fields in Texas, where I heard the Mexicans singing all kinds of great Mexican songs and I heard the blacks singing all kinds of great black songs — blues, gospel.  And there were also a lot of Czechoslovakians down in that area, many of them farmers, so I learned a lot of polkas, waltzes — all that great dance music that the Bohemians play.”

And although he’s always been “Country Willie,” Nelson’s life has been bathed in jazz from its roots to its flowers.  “I like to think that we’re all kind of half-assed jazz musicians,” he said with a chuckle.  “My sister Bobbie listened to all the great musicians and I’ve been a Django Reinhardt fan for many years — so it’s kind of hard not to have that jazz flair in nearly everything we do.”

As for the seemingly unusual pairing of the down-home, unpretentious Nelson with the urbane, sartorially elegant Marsalis, Willie laughed:  “The press liked it a lot, because they could say, “Well, here’s this old country-boy farmer out there playing with this jazz musician from Neww Hork.’  So it looks good in print, but it was a lot of fun and really easy to do.”

And both the fun and the ease are abundantly clear on these highly entertaining DVDs.  The first, Willie Nelson & Wynton Marsalis:  Live from New York City, is a lovingly produced near-documentary of the two days of rehearsals and performances at the posh venue Jazz at Lincoln Center by this group of astounding musicians.  Nelson and Marsalis have a marvelous time interacting, playing and singing together, and their shared love is more heartwarming than a batch of fresh-baked Diesel browninies.  At one point during the filming, Marsalis shakes his head and puts it plain about Nelson:  “He’s real, man, and that’s rare.  You’ve gotta get as close to that as you can nowadays.  It’s important for your own mental being.”

Nicely put — and if your own mental being needs to enjoy the pure musial extraction from this first major summit, Willie Nelson & Wynton Marsalis:  Two Men With the Blues isavailable on CD from Blue Note Records.  Though the pricey NYC jazz club isn’t exactly known as a haven for stoners, High Times asked Nelson if marijuana played any sort of role in these collaborations.  “Well,” he answered with a playful drawy, “I did send them all a vaorizer after we were done.”

Did he get a response?

“Nobody sent one back.”

Hey, clearly they still wanted to hang out!  The second DVD, released in October of last year, is pure musical bliss.  Telling a linear tale from stage entrance to stage exit, Willie Nelson & Wynton Marsalis Play the Music of Ray Charles deliver es just that:  From foot-tapping classics like “Hit the Road Jack” and “Halleluja’ I Love Her So” to a sweet rendition of “Unchain My Heart,” Willie and Wynton (with a special guest appearance by Norah Jones) bring all the life and light of Ray Charles’s superb music to the floor.   And while the firsts DVD has the benefit of fascinating behind-the-scenes footage, the second has had the added luxury of the charisma between Nelson and Jones.  As Nelson observes:  “Norah and I are old friends — she even has a band called the little Willies.”

Finally, the performances here are mind-blowingly great, with saxophone, piano, harmonics, bass and drums adding layers of musical nirvana to enhance any state of mind.  As Nelson pointed out during our interview:  “The music itself is a high.  The audience gets a high from the music, the entertainer gets a high from the music and the audience.  So, with our without drugs, music gets you very high.”

You can catch more of Nelson and hear his new favorite picks at Willie’s Place on both xm and Sirius satellite radio. (www.sirius.com)  (Nelson dubs satellite radio a “godsend” for travelers), but the musical collaboration captured on these discs will make them timeless classics:  a teaming of legends who share the utmost respect and admiration for each other — and have one hell of a good time getting down.  These three discs are something super-special for your shelves, to light up a choice nights and pass around to your most musically diverse buds.

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