Willie Nelson and Wynton Marsalis

Joe Fornabaio

If you regard this Willie-Wynton matchup as a strange bedfellows mating of country and jazz, you’re missing the forest for the trees. These two iconic masters have far too much in common for any genre differences to disrupt their stylish little party, a series of live performances recorded at Lincoln Center in January 2007. Both artists are conservative to the core. All that talk about Willie as "country outlaw" in the late 70s was a fleeting-truth-cum-marketing-coup for a singer who literally has become indistinguishable from, say, Tony Bennett, in his choices of concepts and cover material–with an abiding love for the verities of musical Americana. That the two musicians have the good sense to emphasize the contribution of New Orleans jazz and Delta country blues in their Great American Songbook reveals how tastefully attuned they are to the real history of song in this country. No, nobody is trying to reinvent the wheel here–they just want to create the roundest, smoothest-rolling, structurally-solid wheel possible. And they do, with the kind of refined, sublime, consistently ingenuous collaboration that can give artistic conservatism a proper good name.

The ensemble is a septet that includes four stalwarts from various Marsalis bands and Nelson’s trusty harmonica player Mickey Raphael. They don’t play the music so much as decant it, adding their distinctive flavor to the essential ingredients of the songs like an oak casket imbues the taste of the whiskey. They haven’t stinted on the aging process either: The newest material among the ten tunes were the ones composed by Nelson himself: "Night Life," which was a hit for Ray Price in 1962, and "Rainy Day Blues" from 1965. Willie’s vocals are renowned for the conversational way he takes his time, so that even as the band is nailing the groove of a jump blues like Louis Jordan’s "Caldonia," for example, he’s lagging, savoring the length of a vowel or a nuance in the narrative. But the jazz cats thrive on such improvisatory wrinkles and Raphael is intimately familiar with Willie’s wiles. They don’t "wait;" they pivot and freelance, secure in the knowledge that these songs are in everyone’s DNA.

The least interesting, albeit capably rendered, songs are the Hoagy Carmichael numbers Nelson has recorded before, "Stardust" and "Georgia On My Mind" (although Wynton’s wah-wah-with-mute solo on the latter track is delightful). But they’re in the middle of the set between the sprightly openers and the razor-sharp clowning of the last four numbers, where the performers make the audience relax and laugh with deceptively crisp mugging and interplay. "Rainy Day Blues" benefits from some tambourine and Willie’s banjo-ish guitar; "My Bucket’s Got A Hole In It" features Wynton’s vocal detour into "I Hear You Knockin’ (But You Can’t Come In)" before some wonderfully weepy horn exchanges between Wynton, Raphael, and the resourceful saxophonist Walter Blanding. The rhythm section of rising-star pianist Dan Nimmer, drummer Ali Jackson, and Carlos Henriquez on bass, can, as inferred earlier, jump and clatter with barrelhouse gusto or mine a stark and plaintive blues vein.

Willie Nelson and Wynton Marsalis have become such brand names to the general public that it is easy to be skeptical of their mainstream success. Two Men with the Blues is an ironic title for a disc that reminds us not only of the creative depth of their predictable stylistic choices, but the sheer joy that they derive, and impart, performing this music they so obviously cherish.

**** (Four stars)

Willie Nelson will be appearing at the Grand Casino in Hinckley Saturday, July 18.