Willie Nelson and Wynton Marsalis' inaugural collaboration, Live from Jazz at Lincoln Center, New York City, was one of my nicest DVD surprises of last year; what sounded, at first blush, like a singularly peculiar paring resulted in a homey, mellow, thoroughly enjoyable blues show by two unexpectedly well-suited collaborators. That show (and its corresponding album, Two Men and the Blues) was apparently a positive experience for the musicians as well; a mere year later, they've reteamed for a new concert disc, Willie Nelson and Wynton Marsalis Play the Music of Ray Charles.
The genius of their first special was how it favored neither man's immediate, obvious specialty: Nelson is, of course, a country music icon, while Marsalis is one of the nation's foremost jazzmen, but for that show, they met in the middle and played some blues. This time, in taking on the Charles songbook, they allow themselves to hopscotch all over the melodic map, as he did. Charles was, of course, the "genius of soul," but he was also a musical journeyman who experimented in pop, blues, jazz, and country (most famously on his classic Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music albums). And they don't restrict themselves to Charles' own compositions, just songs he performed throughout his career.
The 91-minute concert is organized by the swings of a modern romance: "love, love lost, and love found again," according to Marsalis, who introduces most of the numbers (often with heckles and interjections from his collaborators). Things get off to a toe-tapping start with a snazzy jazz arrangement of his early hit "Hallelujah, I Love Her So." Norah Jones (who dueted with Charles on his final album, Genius Loves Company) joins them for the second number; the disc is subtitled "with special guest Norah Jones," but she's rather shortchanged by that billing (I'd guess she has about the same amount of screen time as Nelson). At any rate, the group's swinging interpretation of "You Are My Sunshine" is a real treat, and a fine showcase for Norah's sweet-as-honey vocal stylings. (Only one complaint here: Nelson's guitar solo on that number is surprisingly clumsy, particularly in contrast to his fine solos throughout the rest of the show.)
Jones also sounds terrific on the moody, lovely cover of "Come Rain or Come Shine," while the band's bluesy take on "Unchain My Heart" (with cracking percussion by Ali Jackson and a blistering harmonica solo by Mickey Raphael) is outstanding. Jones returns for "Crying Time," but it doesn't quite work; as opposed to the other songs where she shares singing duties with Nelson in a taking-turns fashion, this more conventional duet finds them trying to blend their too-distinctive voices without much success (it reminded me of that "Bridge Over Troubled Water" cover on Johnny Cash's American IV album, a duet with Fiona Apple that marked another case of two great voices that didn't sound great together).
Marsalis' wicked trumpet work is showcased on "Losing Hand"; "Hit the Road, Jack" also finds him in top form, wailing away on his horn in a piercing intro (and singing along with the background vocals). It's (justifiably) one of Ray's most iconic songs, and they do it justice (thanks also to the killer sax part, which Walter Blanding nails, and the keyboard skills of ridiculously young-looking pianist Dan Nimmer). After a fast-paced rip through "I'm Movin' On," they take on "I'm Busted," and while Marsalis' arrangement may be a little too clean, Willie's vocals bring the necessary dirt and grime to the downbeat musical tale.
Jones sings beautifully on the elegant "You Don't Know Me," which rolls effortlessly into "Here We Go Again," and a sassy take on "Makin' Whopee" (which finds Jones having some fun with the tune's rhythms). After the pleasant throwaway "I Love You So Much It Hurts," the full band pulls out all the stops for a rousing romp through "What'd I Say," with all three of the headliners taking turns on the vocals. It's big fun, even if it feels like Norah and Willie are holding back a little on the guttural moans of the song's second half. Finally, "That's All" is an appropriately high-energy closer, nicely balancing the up-tempo instrumentation with Nelson's laid-back vocals.
THE BLU-RAY DISC:
The 1080p/VC-1 encoded 1.78:1 image is quite good--detailed and multi-dimensional, with exquisite detail work and rich skin textures. Black levels are rich and color saturation is very good; the image takes in the hot color gels of the lighting (full red in "Losing Hand," mult-colored in "What'd I Say") without letting them overpower the frame and blow out the image. Wide shots suffer from fleeting softness, but that's a minor issue overall.
The 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio mix is crisp, warm, and full. Instrumentation is well-distributed throughout the soundstage, and the mix handles everything from the high-wailing horns down to Carlos Henriquez's thudding stand-up bass with aplomb. Crowd applause and reaction fills out the surround channels nicely, making for a beautifully immersive faux-concert experience. One minor quibble: Nelson's guitar is frequently buried in the mix, seeming only audible during his solos (though this may well have been the mix they settled on for the show itself). That complaint aside, this is a great-sounding disc.
A 2.0 DTS-HD MA mix is also offered.
The primary bonus feature of note is the full presentation of the HD Net "All Access" program (26:54). This behind-the-scenes show mixes rehearsal and performance footage with multiple interviews (Marsalis, Nelson, Jones, director Brad J. Fuss, and more). It's a good program, given an intellectual boost by Marsalis' scholarly insights.
A Photo Gallery (7:19) of rehearsal and performance pics (scored to their performance of "What'd I Say") is also included.
Wynton Marsalis and Willie Nelson are two unique and surprisingly like-minded talents, as their first collaboration proved. The addition of Norah Jones and the exploration of the music of Ray Charles make this a more-than-worthy re-teaming, full of wonderful arrangements and pleasurable performances.
Also of interest: the recently re-released
"The Willie Nelson Special with Special Guest Ray Charles," a 1985 TV special in which Charles joins Nelson and his band for six numbers.
Jason lives with his wife Rebekah and their daughter Lucy in New York. He holds an MA in Cultural Reporting and Criticism from NYU. He is film editor for Flavorwire and is a contributor to Salon, the Atlantic, and several other publications. His first book, Pulp Fiction: The Complete History of Quentin Tarantino's Masterpiece, was released last fall by Voyageur Press. He blogs at Fourth Row Center and is yet another critic with a Twitter feed.