26 June 2008

Review: Willie and Wynton and the boys

The gypsy guitarist Django Reinhardt made only one tour of the United States. He spent three weeks in November 1946 on the road with Duke Ellington's band, performing for the first time in Cleveland before making stops in Chicago, St. Louis, Detroit, Kansas City, and Pittsburgh before returning to New York for two shows at Carnegie Hall (or almost two - the famously erratic Reinhardt ran into an acquaintance on his way to the concert hall and instead spent two hours at a cafe instead).

The tour was at best a moderate success. (Check out Paul Vernon Chester's account in which he reports that Reinhardt was shocked to discover that Ellington and the members of his band wore underpants of a floral design - although he made sure to picked some up for himself before returning to Europe). Only one obscure recording of the show in Chicago documents their performance chemistry. Still, the event remains on the short list of shows that most jazz fans would have given their right arms to have seen.

I thought of Duke and Django's American adventure last year when I happened on a review of a concert featuring Willie Nelson and Wynton Marsalis. Jazz purists will rattle their dentures at the comparison, but the echoes are there: Nelson, while no gyspy virtuoso, shares Reinhardt's instinctual approach to music and love of swing and the standards that populate much of the jazz songbook. Marsalis, for his part, has made no secret of his desire to inherit Duke the mantle of as both a composer (and snazzy dresser). And I'd have given my right arm to have seen this show.

When the shaggy country star joined the elegantly tailored jazz czar on stage in New York in January 2007, they came together on a program of music from the genre where both styles meet: the blues. The evening apparently got off to a rough start, but five songs in Marsalis's band (drummer Ali Jackson, bassist Carlos Enriquez, pianist Dan Nimmer and saxman Walter Blanding) and Nelson finally found their groove.

That groove is what's on display in the new Blue Note release "Two Men with the Blues," which drops officially on July 8. Nelson is clearly the visiting team here (he gets moral support from his longtime harmonica player, the awesome Mickey Raphael) but he's almost like Jackie Chan's character in the Drunken Master movies in that it's precisely his idiosyncratic (and at times just plain off-kilter) approach that becomes his strength. Marsalis and his men are clearly enjoying the challenge of adapting to the bearded outlaw's at times Zen-like disregard for the beat. On "Stardust" in particular, he's at times so far and so comfortably off the beat that you can feel the rest of the band trying to adjust. The result is kind of a group moonwalk with Willie in the lead.

All this disorder leads to some really fresh and engaging solo work form Marsalis, who I often find a little too calculating in his approach. His vocals on "My Bucket's Got a Hole In It" and "Ain't Nobody's Business" are also a treat. The setting also allows the jazz roots of Nelson's guitar solo technique, always laying there latent, to come to the fore. (As a footnote, the recording also makes clear how integral Mickey Raphael's harmonica is to the Willie Nelson sound. His presence on the band stand is as understated as ever but just as tightly wound into the larger context.)

The essential pleasure of "Two Men with the Blues" is listening to this meeting of city and country styles as the players work it out. It's actually less of a concert than an especially productive jam session. I'll dare to hope that they both Wynton and Willie carve some time out of their rampant touring schedules to see what else they might be able to come up with. And if not, we'll always have this one night in New York to remember.

Free download
Willie Nelson and Wynton Marsalis - Bright Lights, Big City (mp3)


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