2008 looks to be a year for unlikely musical pairings. Earlier this year, the unlikely duo of fiddle playing bluegrass singer Alison Krauss and rock icon Robert Plant turned heads when they released the critically-acclaimed "Raising Sand," and set off on a sold-out concert tour. According to VOA's Katherine Cole, the latest musical odd couple to hit the charts is … Willie Nelson and Wynton Marsalis.
Their album is called Two Men With the Blues, and it opens with a swinging version of "Bright Lights, Big City."
While the concept of pairing a jazz standard-bearer like Wynton Marsalis with a Country legend like Willie Nelson seems strange, the result works because it is neither a Country record nor a jazz album. Instead, the two veteran musicians found common ground in their love of the blues.
Two Men With The Blues is a live recording, taped during a two-night stand during last year's "Jazz at Lincoln Center" event in New York City. At the time, it was called a "summit meeting" between two icons of American music. Both sides brought plenty of support to the meeting. Willie came with his famously beat up, old acoustic guitar and a harmonica player, while Wynton brought his trumpet and regular quartet. The resulting album is one that some critics have called the best thing Willie Nelson has recorded since his now-classic Stardust CD, released in 1978. Fans of that album, and the song, will be pleased to hear "Stardust" show up on Two Men With the Blues, with an arrangement that puts the spotlight on both men.
Along with new takes on pop standards and some blues classics, another treat on Two Men With the Blues is hearing Wynton Marsalis sing. He contributes vocals to two tracks, "My Bucket's Got A Hole In It," and "Ain't Nobody's Business." It's obvious from the playful sound on those tracks that the two veteran musicians enjoyed working together.
During an interview with Newsweek magazine, Willie Nelson and Wynton Marsalis were asked if they saw themselves as a musical "odd couple." They answered with a resounding "No!" Nelson replied that, as musicians, the pair liked the same kind of music. Marsalis went on to explain that the two had the same "American experience." Meaning that even though Willie Nelson is a 75-year-old white man who grew up in a small Texas town, the music he brought to project were songs Wynton Marsalis, a 46-year-old black man from Louisiana, had known all his life. Wynton grew up playing "Caldonia," and many of the other songs on Two Men with the Blues.
Critics weren't the only ones enjoying the duo of Wynton Marsalis and Willie Nelson. Two Men with the Blues debuted at Number 20 on the Billboard Top 200 album chart the week it was released, making it the highest-ranking first week number of Willie Nelson's career, and Wynton Marsalis' highest-charting album ever.
Busy schedules have kept the pair from touring together, though it's been announced Willie Nelson and Wynton Marsalis will be performing together again next February as part of the 70th anniversary celebration of Blue Note Records. And, if you can't make it to New York, you can still see the show, or at least the 2007 version, as a concert DVD is set for release in September.