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What do you get when you pair a certified country music renegade with contemporary jazz's "keeper of the flame"? When the renegade is Willie Nelson and the jazz champion is Wynton Marsalis, the end result is one of the best CDs of 2008.
Two Men With the Blues was recorded during a historic two-night stand on January 12 and 13, 2007 at Lincoln Center's Allen Room in New York and billed as "Willie Nelson Sings The Blues." If this CD is any indication, he sure did. Nelson plays guitar and singsbacked by Marsalis (trumpet), Mickey Raphael (harmonica), Walter Blanding (sax), Ali Jackson (drums), Dan Nimmer (piano) and Carlos Henriquez (bass)and his twangy voice is in fine form.
Opening the disc with Jimmy Reed's "Bright Lights Big City" was a stroke of genius. Nelson's voice and phrasing work perfectly against and in unison with Raphael and Marsalis' solos. Nelson also shines on Hoagy Carmichael's "Georgia On My Mind," conveying its subtle, subdued longing as only he can, and "Stardust," with its plucky piano, brushed drums and smoldering trumpet touches. Though to modern audiences these songs have both become better known as Willie Nelson songs, the arrangements here feel closer to the original Carmichael standards than previous Nelson versions.
When the CD ventures into the land of Marsalis' birth, New Orleans, on "Basin Street Blues" it becomes evident that this is more than simply a Willie Nelson CD backed by the Wynton Marsalis group. Marsalis is front and center of the trumpet and harmonica call-and-response, while he metaphorically goes on a tour through the French Quarter. Marsalis also sings on the dischis laid-back baritone vocals on both "My Bucket's Got A Hole In It" and "Ain't Nobody's Business" add a different dimension to the songs and act as the perfect foil to Nelson's barbs and quips.
The CD is full of surprises. The bouncy, swinging version of "Caldonia," with its serious kick, sounds like it was recorded in a Bourbon Street bar, early on a Saturday night when the band is trying to get the crowd hopping. "That's All" is reworked into a sly jump-blues number straight out of '40s.
Sadly, the CD is only 54 minutes and ten tracks long. Though not on the disc, a version of "Down by The Riverside" is available exclusively on iTunes. Hopefully, since Nelson and Marsalis have played occasional dates across the country, there will be a follow-up CDor at least a second release featuring the other tracks recorded during these performances.