When jazzcast season 14 from Jazz at Lincoln Center drew to an end with the Willie Nelson and Wynton Marsalis performance from January 2007, one could not help being stunned by the energy that came through, the masterful segueing of solos within the five-minute song format (the longest track on this set clocks 7.28), the relaxed and unassuming yet refreshing arrangements of standards, and of course, the amazing 75-year-old voice of Nelson (you get to hear Marsalis sing too). I got to hear this set on an internet stream with Marsalis as a commentator ("...and I put a little contribution on that...") late in September 2007, and I wished I could have this on my shelf. So it was a great feeling to see Two Men with the Blues in stores.
There is no escaping the overpowering musical subtext that each of these two bring to the stage, it flows like a massive yet gentle river right through. There is no escaping the blues that happens when these two giants meet to sing about rainy days, no peace found, the land of dreams, rice and beans, and Caldonia's big hard head. There is no escaping the soulful sentimentality that soaks through classics like Stardust and Georgia on My Mind in the hands of this group of masters and simmers them to perfection in this blues act. And there is no escaping the fact that what comes out of the album is an unique package of music that is uplifting by its virtuosity, that tugs at your heartstrings, that makes you smile at the classic irony and humor of songs like Caldonia and Aint Nobody's Business.
The first track, Jimmy Reed's Bright Lights Big City, sets the tone for the album, since the concert is at the Allen Room, with a 50-feet glass backdrop overlooking Central Park and Manhattan. Night Life, the second track, is one of the two Nelson regulars that take on a new life in this album, the other being Stardust. Starting out with a subtle but incisive intro by Marsalis over Carlos "Papichulo" Henriquez' reflective bass line, it takes off with Nelson at his country best, restrained and thoughtful, with the band giving the right bluesy touch. The solos on this track are masterpieces, from Nelson's muted but flowing acoustic guitar to Mickey Raphael's haunting harmonica, not to mention the trumpet and sax Marsalis and Walter Blanding.
Caldonia is out and out fun, and Nelson gives it the classic blues touch and the big band stride is perfectly matched with perhaps the most blistering set of solos, with Nelson's guitar leading the way for Henriquez, Raphael, Blanding with Marsalis and Dan Nimmer keeping the percussion tight.
This album also has two renditions that stand out as among the best versions ever, Stardust, and Georgia on my Mind. Get this album now.
Missed on this album are some of the other performances from the two magical nights, Ellington/Russell's Dont Get Around Much Anymore.