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Willie Nelson & Wynton Marsalis: Two Men With The Blues

On July 8, 2008, Blue Note Records will release the album: Willie Nelson & Wynton Marsalis: Two Men With The Blues.

Recorded live last year, the event was simply billed as “Willie Nelson Sings the Blues,” but the historic two-night stand on January 12 and 13, 2007 at Jazz at Lincoln Center was far more than that. Call it a summit meeting between two American icons, Willie Nelson & Wynton Marsalis, two of the most significant figures in modern-day country and jazz, who discovered common ground in their love for jazz standards and the blues. Their performance stirred the sounds of New Orleans, Nashville, Austin and New York City into a brilliantly programmed mix that was equal parts down-home and cosmopolitan, with plenty of swing and just a touch of melancholy.

To say that these shows were a hot ticket would be an understatement. Luckily, the tapes were rolling and the results of this unique collaboration now constitute the Blue Note album Two Men With The Blues for everyone who couldn’t cram into The Allen Room.

Track list:
01. Bright Lights, Big City
02. Night Life
03. Caldonia
04. Stardust
05. Basin Street Blues
06. Georgia On My Mind
07. Rainy Day Blues
08. My Bucket’s Got a Hole In it
09. Ain’t Nobody’s Business
10. That’s All

Bonus Track on iTunes Music Store
11. Down By The Riverside

Wynton Marsalis (trumpet, vocals)
Willie Nelson (guitar, vocals)
Walter Blanding (saxophone)
Mickey Raphael (harmonica)
Dan Nimmer (piano)
Carlos Henriquez (bass)
Ali Jackson (drums)

Nelson’s appearance was the highlight of the aptly named 2006-07 Singers Over Manhattan series, which Jazz at Lincoln Center produced and set against the breathtaking backdrop of The Allen Room. The venue, at Columbus Circle in New York City, features a two-story glass wall behind the stage, so that artists perform in front of a classic New York City nighttime tableau: taxis streaming around Columbus Circle, the lights of Upper East Side apartments beyond Central Park, and the moon rising over it all. Assembled before this ever-changing backdrop were Nelson in his elegant southwest regalia; his longtime sidemen, harmonica player Mickey Raphael, dressed for the occasion in a suit and tie; and the always suave Marsalis, with his quartet pianist Dan Nimmer, bassist Carlos Henriquez, drummer Ali Jackson and saxophonist Walter Blanding.

Their recorded set opens with the gussied-up honky-tonk of “Bright Lights Big City,” and it has an almost cinematic flair; says Marsalis, “We’re like the big city meets the country. Mickey is the sound of the train….and we’re like the car horns.” There’s ample room for solos, allowing everyone a chance to step out; Raphael’s wailing harmonica segues into Marsalis’s trumpet lines, which he plays at a slightly more measured tempo before turning the spotlight over to Blanding. It all winds up with lively, boogie-woogie piano and bass thumping before Nelson steps back up to the mic. It was that kind of gig: a clearly well-rehearsed ensemble effort that nonetheless had an air of spontaneity, congeniality and fun. For his smoky intro to the second track, “Night Life,” Marsalis shifts everything down into a blues-ballad mood; Raphael contributes a high-and-lonesome harmonica solo and Nelson gives the lyrics a ruminative, lived-through reading. “Caledonia,” up next, is often played as an all-out big band rave-up, but Nelson maintains his considerable cool and the band follows suit, illustrating that an arrangement can become all the more exciting when it percolates just under a boil.

The New York Times critic Nate Chinen noted the “playful tone” between Nelson and Marsalis, who, Chinen wrote, “played his trumpet with terse, unforced authority…He was pushing toward a vocal quality, singing through his horn. Mr. Marsalis also sang with his voice, on a version of ‘Ain’t Nobody’s Business’ that quickly turned into a buddy duet. ‘I hear you,’ Mr. Nelson said sympathetically during a roguish verse by Mr. Marsalis. It was a moment evocative of the banter between Jack Teagarden and Louis Armstrong.”

But, Chinen added,” the concert’s most transcendent moments conveyed more of a quiet ache. They were ‘Stardust’ and ‘Georgia on My Mind,’ a pair of Hoagy Carmichael standards that Mr. Nelson long ago personalized. He sang them both with a forthright intimacy, as if telling a cherished bedtime story. And the band was right there with him, emphasizing how the blues are as much a feeling as a form.”

Says Nelson, “These songs, heard this way with this group—that’s never been done before. Whatever I’m doing, if you put Wynton and these guys around it, that brings it up to a different level.” Among the other tracks featured in the set are Nelson’s own “Rainy Day Blues” and renditions of Spencer Williams’s “Basin Street Blues” and Clarence Williams’s “My Bucket’s Got a Hole In It.” That one features an exuberant arrangement redolent of New Orleans brass bands, with an extended percussion break and great vocal repartee between Nelson and Marsalis. The group climaxes the set with the high-spirited gospel groove of “That’s All.” Judging by all the exuberant hoots and hollers from the crowd, the band was truly testifying; listeners at home should feel free to join in, as long as the neighbors won’t mind.

Last fall, when the 74 year-old Willie received the BMI Icon Award at the organization’s annual Country Awards, Kris Kristofferson declared, “As a performing artist, there will never be anyone like him. Like Muhammad Ali, like Johnny Cash, he’s become more than the art form that made him famous.” Marsalis would certainly agree. As he remarked during the rehearsals for the show, “The first thing about Willie is his integrity. He’s been traveling up and down the road all these years on his bus. He’s like the last of a certain breed of musicians.”

With his “outlaw” persona, Nelson changed the face of country music, and then reached well beyond it to attract a multi-generational audience among followers of jam bands, classic rock, blues and jazz. Explains Nelson, a GRAMMY® Legend recipient, “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…Some music encompasses it all, so what do you call that? And that’s pretty much what I like to play.”

The virtuosic Marsalis, as erudite as he is hip, has built his own remarkable career in both jazz and classical music. A winner of the Pulitzer Prize and multiple GRAMMY® awards, he is Artistic Director of Jazz at Lincoln Center. He has served as a jazz historian, educator and a mentor to many younger musicians, and he has long honored the musical traditions of his native New Orleans. Like Nelson, though, Marsalis has not merely upheld tradition; he’s expanded upon it and continues to explore it within a modern context. This live collaboration with Nelson was sparked by Marsalis’s belief that the blues should be our national anthem. He’s clearly found the perfect artist to help him make his point. What better voices than Nelson’s and Marsalis’ to represent the land of the free?

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Discussion has ended on this entry.

  1. I have been a fan of Wynton Marsalis for 25 years. My respect for him as a trumpeter, composer, statesman, musician… person… knows no bounds. If I were to try to name the “best” musician of all time, how could I compare Paco De Lucia and Stevie Ray Vaughan and Mozart and Louis Armstrong and a thousand others? I guess I would name Mr. Marsalis.

    I was never particularly a fan of Mr. Nelson, but that has changed, thanks to this album.

    That’s what I think, and It Ain’t Nobody’s Business If I Do.

    Blaine on Jun 25th, 2009 at 4:10am

  2. what brand of trumpet does wynton use and does he uses a special mouthpiece

    ron on Apr 11th, 2009 at 3:40pm

  3. Wynton unbelievable!!! He is also underrated as a composer. He has written music so unique that he could make duke, Bach, or Mozart jealous. Am I the only one hearing his music?

    King casey on Feb 17th, 2009 at 1:59am

  4. i will like to know more of jazz in the best way

    OLODEOKU MICHAEL OLUWAFEMI on Dec 17th, 2008 at 2:03pm

  5. hi
    pls i want to be a memeber of your site.

    OLODEOKU MICHAEL OLUWAFEMI on Dec 17th, 2008 at 1:59pm

  6. What is a flagging career?

    Karen on Sep 25th, 2008 at 12:40pm

  7. This is a transparent marketing ploy to jump start two flagging careers—like Norah Jones with Dolly Parton.

    Joe Piscopo on Sep 25th, 2008 at 9:42am

  8. I love this music- I wake up at night with Willie’s voice in my head. Wynton is as brilliant and full of mischief as ever but I think the brilliance comes from the combination of all these guys – each playing like the were born to – in communion with spirit— in this case the Spirit of the BLUES. THANK YOU and LOVE TO YOU ALL.
    —Heather in Victoria, B.C.

    Heather Atkinson on Sep 25th, 2008 at 1:49am

  9. It wouldn’t matter, but for the stranglehold that Wynton and Stanley Crouch currently have, dictating that only imitative conservative approaches are allowed, what Miles Davis would’ve called “dead museum music.” Anyway, America is far too gone to endure anything really dangerous creatively. It’s stuck in its ever so tiny business and baby making mode, thickening the base of Maslow’s hierarchy, but never building anything on top of it. Let’s face it, we’re hardly a culture of ideas and we’re not subtle. We’re fodder for the nuclear dabblings of some third world potentate. Enjoy what time remains folks, but listen to Miles. ciao

    Arnie Kowlaski on Aug 26th, 2008 at 12:43pm

  10. Stephen Brantley sums it up beautifully. Does it matter who is top dog. They obviously both enjoyed it and it comes through.This is the most pleasing CD I have bought in a long time. Wish I could have been there!

    Dave Bishop on Aug 26th, 2008 at 5:45am

  11. What you have here are two very humble musicians who are both lengendary and together, along with a tremendous band, they create one hell of a sound. This album is priceless.

    Stephen Brantley on Aug 17th, 2008 at 11:11pm

  12. throughly enjoying this album-great work as usual,thanks.

    EdandDee Langley,B.C.canada on Aug 13th, 2008 at 1:09am

  13. Best,

    Crawdaddy on Jul 24th, 2008 at 6:40pm

  14. I put timeless creative achievement over technical skill. Wynton hasn’t brought anything to the table of lasting works. He’s no Duke Ellington, though I admire his scholarly endeavors. Simply put, he can’t come up with a musical idea that is simple and memorable—-Willie has and will outlive him in name and deed. Watch and learn the truth of what I’ve said.

    Able Winestinger on Jul 13th, 2008 at 12:42am

  15. Wynton is without doubt the greatest with both his classical and jazz capacities.

    He’s also such a nice guy – good of him to play with everyone in a modest manner with such enormous talent.


    charles Davaille on Jul 12th, 2008 at 8:52am

  16. What’s humble about Wynton playing with Willie Nelson? Willie wrote Crazy, a song as timeless and great as Stardust. What did Wynton write?

    steve Jaundice on Jul 6th, 2008 at 1:28am

  17. I love the fact that Wynton is so humble, he doesn’t mind playing with anyone. He always adapts and manages to swing.

    CJD on Apr 10th, 2008 at 6:12pm

  18. This is beyond incredible news.

    Nic Rinke on Apr 10th, 2008 at 10:38am