Release Date: Mar 29, 2011
Record label: Blue Note
Genre(s): Jazz, R&B, Country, Jazz-Pop
Willie Nelson paying tribute to Ray Charles? Makes sense: Both men are American icons whose songbooks are full of barroom country, blues and classic pop. But Here We Go Again — recorded live in New York in 2009 with Wynton Marsalis' band and guest Norah Jones — feels like a missed opportunity. Nelson's nylon-stabbing guitar is too scarce here, giving way to Marsalis' jazz band, a slick cast that rotates solos exhaustively.
Willie Nelson and Wynton Marsalis first worked together at The Allen Room at New York’s Jazz at Lincoln Center for two nights in 2007, and while at first it would seem to be an odd pairing, it really isn’t: Nelson's singing and guitar playing have always fallen well to the jazz side of country all along anyway, and he’s hardly been a garden variety hat act during his long career, while Marsalis has long worked to reintroduce jazz as a viable popular form in American music. It’s about synthesis, really, and so it makes perfect sense for Nelson and Marsalis to turn to the music of Ray Charles, one of the greatest assimilators of American pop music -- all forms of it, from gospel to blues, country, jazz, and R&B-for their encore shows at the heralded jazz house -- this time for two sold-out nights at Rose Theater in February 2009 with special guest Norah Jones. Marsalis arranged the music as both an homage to Charles and as a loose song cycle about the ups and downs of love, and backed by his working quintet of tenor saxophonist Walter Blanding, pianist Dan Nimmer, bassist Carlos Henriquez, and drummer Ali Jackson, plus Nelson's longtime harmonica player Mickey Raphael, it all feels wonderfully appropriate, with Charles' standards like “Hallelujah I Love Her So,” “Cryin’ Time,” “Hit the Road Jack,” “Busted,” “Makin’ Whoopie,” and his iconic signature hit, “What’d I Say” all sounding comfortable and fresh.
Not so long ago, the Wynton Marsalis brand in jazz meant fancy-pantsy compositions for orchestra that mixed high-Ellingtonia with a dose of classical pretention—all written to accompany a ballet, perhaps. Whether this music was wonderful or not—and some of it was indeed deeply wonderful and even revelatory—it had neither the fun nor the direct joyousness of the American popular song. In 2007, however, Marsalis invited a ray of sunshine to share the stage with him at Lincoln Center’s Allen Room.
Marsalis and Nelson join forces once more, with help from Norah Jones. Bill Tilland 2011 How do you fill the seats at the Lincoln Center? Well, you have Wynton Marsalis and his band connect once again with ageless icon Willie Nelson (their 2008 blues collaboration was widely acclaimed), add pop chanteuse Norah Jones as a guest vocalist and pull the whole program together by mining the catalogue of another legend: the late Ray Charles. Marsalis and company don’t exactly hit the bull’s-eye every time on this recording of the event.
Like its 2008 predecessor, Two Men With the Blues, this live collaboration of icons Nelson and Marsalis performing the music of Ray Charles isn't likely to generate any new converts. In fact, the uniqueness that was largely the saving grace of the previous outing doesn't hold sway anymore. Despite boasting favorites from Charles repertoire including "Cryin' Time," "Busted," and "Hit the Road Jack," this summit never clicks, perhaps a result of the one-off nature of the project making it hard for the musical personalities to fully gel.