The genius of their first special was how it favored neither man’s immediate, obvious specialty: Nelson is, of course, a country music icon, while Marsalis is one of the nation’s foremost jazzmen, but for that show, they met in the middle and played some blues. This time, in taking on the Charles songbook, they allow themselves to hopscotch all over the melodic map, as he did. Charles was, of course, the “genius of soul,” but he was also a musical journeyman who experimented in pop, blues, jazz, and country (most famously on his classic Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music albums). And they don’t restrict themselves to Charles’ own compositions, just songs he performed throughout his career.
The 91-minute concert is organized by the swings of a modern romance: “love, love lost, and love found again,” according to Marsalis, who introduces most of the numbers (often with heckles and interjections from his collaborators). Things get off to a toe-tapping start with a snazzy jazz arrangement of his early hit “Hallelujah, I Love Her So.” Norah Jones (who dueted with Charles on his final album, Genius Loves Company) joins them for the second number; the disc is subtitled “with special guest Norah Jones,” but she’s rather shortchanged by that billing (I’d guess she has about the same amount of screen time as Nelson). At any rate, the group’s swinging interpretation of “You Are My Sunshine” is a real treat, and a fine showcase for Norah’s sweet-as-honey vocal stylings. (Only one complaint here: Nelson’s guitar solo on that number is surprisingly clumsy, particularly in contrast to his fine solos throughout the rest of the show.)
Jones also sounds terrific on the moody, lovely cover of “Come Rain or Come Shine,” while the band’s bluesy take on “Unchain My Heart” (with cracking percussion by Ali Jackson and a blistering harmonica solo by Mickey Raphael) is outstanding. Jones returns for “Crying Time,” but it doesn’t quite work; as opposed to the other songs where she shares singing duties with Nelson in a taking-turns fashion, this more conventional duet finds them trying to blend their too-distinctive voices without much success (it reminded me of that “Bridge Over Troubled Water” cover on Johnny Cash’s American IV album, a duet with Fiona Apple that marked another case of two great voices that didn’t sound great together).
Marsalis’ wicked trumpet work is showcased on “Losing Hand”; “Hit the Road, Jack” also finds him in top form, wailing away on his horn in a piercing intro (and singing along with the background vocals). It’s (justifiably) one of Ray’s most iconic songs, and they do it justice (thanks also to the killer sax part, which Walter Blanding nails, and the keyboard skills of ridiculously young-looking pianist Dan Nimmer). After a fast-paced rip through “I’m Movin’ On,” they take on “I’m Busted,” and while Marsalis’ arrangement may be a little too clean, Willie’s vocals bring the necessary dirt and grime to the downbeat musical tale.
Jones sings beautifully on the elegant “You Don’t Know Me,” which rolls effortlessly into “Here We Go Again,” and a sassy take on “Makin’ Whopee” (which finds Jones having some fun with the tune’s rhythms). After the pleasant throwaway “I Love You So Much It Hurts,” the full band pulls out all the stops for a rousing romp through “What’d I Say,” with all three of the headliners taking turns on the vocals. It’s big fun, even if it feels like Norah and Willie are holding back a little on the guttural moans of the song’s second half. Finally, “That’s All” is an appropriately high-energy closer, nicely balancing the up-tempo instrumentation with Nelson’s laid-back vocals.
Wynton Marsalis and Willie Nelson are two unique and surprisingly like-minded talents, as their first collaboration proved. The addition of Norah Jones and the exploration of the music of Ray Charles make this a more-than-worthy re-teaming, full of wonderful arrangements and pleasurable performances.
Also of interest: the recently re-released “The Willie Nelson Special with Special Guest Ray Charles,” a 1985 TV special in which Charles joins Nelson and his band for six numbers.