Recorded live during "Willie Nelson Sings the Blues," his 2007 two-night stand with the Wynton Marsalis Quintet for Jazz at Lincoln Center, where Marsalis serves as artistic director, Two Men with the Blues is by far the most enjoyable music of 2008.
Nelson and Marsalis meet each other halfway between the acoustic country blues of Nashville (via Austin) and the Dixieland and ragtime blues of New Orleans. Nelson previously recorded every tune they call off, including perennial classics "Georgia on My Mind" and "Stardust." He plays guitar and sings with Wynton's quintet, and brings along legendary harmonica sidekick Mickey Raphael to inject the moaning sound of country and blues.
Nelson's vocal phrasing on these tunes is a genuine, unique distillation of jazz, country and blues. It sounds like he begins phrases too late or ends them too soon (especially the ballads, but even in a raveup like "Caledonia"), yet he seems to find each song's essential time and space by singing only those syllables and beats required to make each word and note meaningful. Nelson's phrasing can sound too relaxed or even sloppy, but listen closer and it's not. It's brilliant.
Jump on the chugging locomotive of the opening "Bright Lights, Big City," then set a spell to enjoy the rest of this ride through Dixieland and the blues. Make sure to romp through "Basin Street Blues," where Willie sings the introduction but Marsalis' trumpet sounds the clarion call, Nelson plucks his electric guitar solo to sound like a banjo and Marsalis' unaccompanied stoptime solo rolls on like a mighty river, deep and full of power and life.
"My Bucket's Got a Hole In It" and "Ain't Nobody's Business" sound arranged for New Orleans brass ensembles: "Bucket" opens up a round of solos after Nelson's first verse, then erupts into swinging ensemble blowing that culminates with Walter Blanding screaming out a single saxophone note so high it sounds like a clarinet, to bring it home. "Business" takes off from there, opening in Crescent City outer space with free ensemble blowing that sort of wobbles together in time for Nelson's first verse. Marsalis sure rocks the house with his blues solo too.
But Nelson most likely contemplates no descriptions or explanations of these types. "Labels were invented to sell the music. You had to know what to call it before you could sell it. So they called the blues the blues, called the jazz the jazz, bluegrass, gospel, whatever," he has suggested. "Some music encompasses it all, so what do you call that? And that's pretty much what I like to play."
What do I call that? I call it great American music, and some of the best you'll hear this year.