Movies: Willie Nelson/Wynton Marsalis – Live from Jazz at Lincoln Center, NYC (2008)

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by Nick DeRiso

We’ve already offered a tip of the hat to “Two Men With the Blues,” Wynton Marsalis’ new recording with Willie Nelson — an offbeat, stirring collaboration that crossed genres and, hopefully, changed minds about the walls we’ve put up inside the open spaces of our music.

Eagle Rock Entertainment subsequently offered this terrific multi-media companion piece called “Live from Jazz At Lincoln Center, NYC.” A pairing that was both significant and swinging on record is given a greater depth on the DVD, which includes illuminating interviews, a couple of new numbers, some rehearsal footage — and the rich, just-right backdrop of a busy Manhattan streetscape as a secondary character.

Settling in with this project, you’re waiting for fresh, sharp angles — and they arrive, but not because the two principals ostensibly come from such different places. They share more common ground than either perhaps came in knowing.

Nelson isn’t just a hillbilly picker: “He understands,” Wynton says of Willie at one point during the film, “the whole of the country.” Marsalis, meanwhile, has had great success moving outside the structure of jazz into a grinding blues.

More particularly, they both believe, you can see, that it’s not about category so much as soul — in that elemental moment when your heart splashes inside your chest.

That said, “Live,” recorded over two nights in January of 2007 in the Allen Room stage at the Lincoln Center, doesn’t relegate this meditation to pure idiom.

The concert opens with “Rainy Day Blues, a barbecued Kansas City smoker, then moves right into “Georgia On My Mind” — this sweet reverie.

“Bright Lights, Big City,” the familiar Jimmy Reed vehicle, is perfectly set amidst towering windows overlooking busy streets below. But there is also a refined eloquence to standards like “Stardust,” “Night Life” and Ellington’s “Don’t Get Around Much Anymore,” a DVD-only cut which features this great plucky solo by Nelson.

Nelson incorporates hill-country twang with surprising polyrhythms that aren’t quite jazz or blues, while Marsalis (despite years away) can still settle into a New Orleans groove, notably on “Basin Street Blues” and “Down By the Riverside.”

And why not? U.S. highways push us past both roadhouses and hootenannys, around concert halls and hard by juke joints. We may not stop, but this is all part of our American story, of our American music.

Filmed interviews with both Nelson and Marsalis, noting perhaps his offbeat presence at a Jazz at Lincoln Center event, explore the contributions of gritty harmonica player Mickey Raphael, a member of Nelson’s touring band who Marsalis calls “The Train” — appropriate in that Raphael’s distinctive playing so often calls us to a different place. The band is rounded out by a largely conventional group that includes pianist Dan Nimmer, bassist Carlos Hendriquez, drummer Ali Jackson and saxist Walter Blanding.

In the end, however, this remains a recording and a DVD about the two principal players, and how they interacted through their native commonality. You’re reminded of that time, in July 1930, when Louis Armstrong and Jimmie Rodgers recorded together. Or that Charlie Parker famously sat in with Bob Wills.

Marsalis and Nelson are no less far-flung, and their sharing a stage might be the most surprising of them all — considering that it happened during today’s regimentally segregated musical landscape.

Even so, each time, these seemingly inappropriately combined artists managed to find a vista together.

They played the blues.

Nick DeRiso

Nick DeRiso

Nick DeRiso has written for USA Today, American Songwriter, All About Jazz, and a host of others. Honored as columnist of the year five times by the Associated Press, Louisiana Press Association and Louisiana Sports Writers Association, he oversaw a daily section named Top 10 in the U.S. by the AP before co-founding Something Else! Nick is now associate editor of Ultimate Classic Rock.
Nick DeRiso
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