On July 16, 1930, country music’s founding father, Jimmie Rodgers, and jazz progenitor Louis Armstrong found common ground in the blues, creating “Blue Yodel No. 9 (Standing on the Corner),” one of history’s most unlikely and extraordinary recordings. Almost 80 years later, on Two Men With the Blues, Willie Nelson and Wynton Marsalis find the same sweet spot—a perfect match between Nelson’s Western swing and Marsalis’ New Orleans jazz—showing how much vitality remains to be mined from that earlier recorded encounter between jazz and country.
Two Men comes culled from two live Lincoln Center jazz nights. Longtime Nelson harmonica player Mickey Raphael aside, the band consists of players with a particular affinity for mixing New Orleans jazz with the blues. Nelson sounds reinvigorated in this context; he manages to maintain his casual style on cuts such as “Basin Street Blues” and “Ain’t Nobody’s Business” while delivering his most expressive performance in years. Marsalis, on the other hand, is stagy and plays with showmanship in the best sense of his idol, Louis Armstrong. That Marsalis is also clearly having fun can be heard in his joyous (yes) singing.
As on last year’s Alison Krauss and Robert Plant collaboration, Marsalis and Nelson create music that sounds liberated, a leap forward from the stage duets of old stars from Santana to Sinatra. In this case, combining musicians and mixing muses from different worlds works so well, it feels like a new genre has been born.
The bottom line: *****