On paper, a group effort between jazz trumpeter Wynton Marsalis and Country Music crooner Willie Nelson might seem a bit out of the box. Although the Father of Country Music, Jimmie Rodgers aligned with Louis Armstrong back in the ‘30s. And in the liners, Phil Schaap cites blues-rock guitar hero Eric Clapton’s 2003 appearance at New York City’s Apollo Theater, also featuring Nelson who in turn, teemed with Marsalis on a few numbers. Since that gig, Nelson made an impressionable imprint with Marsalis; hence, the events leading to these performances in the Allen Room at Jazz At Lincoln Center, spanning two evenings in January ’07.
It’s an affable endeavor, indeed. Nelson, clad in his customary country-casual garb, sings and performs on his road-worn acoustic guitar, whereas Marsalis and his quartet are dressed in suits and ties. Moreover, Nelson’s harmonica ace Mickey Raphael rounds out the band and provides a roots-driven edge to the jazz-blues-country format.
Amid various songs, the film crew interviews Marsalis and Nelson as the former makes a good point about the blues residing as a core component of Western song forms. Whether it’s country, jazz or rock, the blues looms as the primary underlying ingredient.
The trumpeter’s wah-wah lines on "Georgia On My Mind," are counterbalanced by Raphael’s down-home style phrasings and Nelson’s nicely understated vocals as they raise the ante a few notches after the bridge. Nelson enjoys frequent soloing opportunities and while not dazzling by any stretch, he seems to pick the right notes. The ensemble professes a consistent state of camaraderie throughout. While Marsalis occasionally injects some lightning via his broad-toned and fluid soloing jaunts.
One of my favorite tracks within the program is the septet's up-tempo rendition of "Stardust," which is a piece that Nelson has covered in the past. However, drummer Ali Jackson launches "Sweet Georgia Brown," with a turbulent cross-sticking groove across his toms and cymbals, followed by Carlos Henriquez’ bass solo. Then the band kicks it into overdrive with a brisk swing vamp, interspersed with Marsalis’ fiery notes and Nelson’s low-key vocals where the musicians’ subsequently trade vibrant fours. Other highlights include the group’s quirky and humorous spin on "That’s All," followed by a finger-snapping, trad-jazz version of "Down By The Riverside."
At the end of the performance, Nelson summarizes the entire experience, stating that it was a "red letter day and week." And after viewing the footage, I’d infer that his sentiments were mirrored by those in attendance, and perhaps now, by viewers of this endearing and indubitably, heart-warming film.