Willie Nelson and Wynton Marsalis first worked together at The Allen Room at New York’s Jazz at Lincoln Center for two nights in 2007, and while at first it would seem to be an odd pairing, it really isn’t: Nelson's singing and guitar playing have always fallen well to the jazz side of country all along anyway, and he’s hardly been a garden variety hat act during his long career, while Marsalis has long worked to reintroduce jazz as a viable popular form in American music. It’s about synthesis, really, and so it makes perfect sense for Nelson and Marsalis to turn to the music of Ray Charles, one of the greatest assimilators of American pop music -- all forms of it, from gospel to blues, country, jazz, and R&B-for their encore shows at the heralded jazz house -- this time for two sold-out nights at Rose Theater in February 2009 with special guest Norah Jones. Marsalis arranged the music as both an homage to Charles and as a loose song cycle about the ups and downs of love, and backed by his working quintet of tenor saxophonist Walter Blanding, pianist Dan Nimmer, bassist Carlos Henriquez, and drummer Ali Jackson, plus Nelson's longtime harmonica player Mickey Raphael, it all feels wonderfully appropriate, with Charles' standards like “Hallelujah I Love Her So,” “Cryin’ Time,” “Hit the Road Jack,” “Busted,” “Makin’ Whoopie,” and his iconic signature hit, “What’d I Say” all sounding comfortable and fresh. The only thing missing is Ray Charles himself, who undoubtedly would have had no trouble fitting into these shows. Radio now splits everything into little niches. That isn’t what Charles was about. He saw music as convergence. This fine concert album plays in that same spirit.
Share this page
AllMusic Review by Steve Leggett