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. And what’s most apparent, sadly, is that Nelson’s vocal deficiencies grow more obvious every year. Some might argue that his weathered voice has gained in character what it has lost in strength and range, but my ears tell me otherwise. Nelson retains his insouciance and his unerring rhythmic sense, but his feeble rendition of I Love You So Much It Hurts is probably the weakest track here. And his partially a cappella duet with Jones on Cryin’ Time is ramshackle, not in a good way.
On blues and R&B numbers such as Hallelujah I Just Love Her So, Unchain My Heart and Losing Hand, Nelson digs in and provides some welcome swagger; but it’s also telling that an anonymous soul vocalist is called in to provide muscular support on shouters like Busted and Hit the Road Jack. And while Jones is impeccable as always, and handles both jazz (Come Rain or Come Shine, Makin’ Whoopie) and country (Here We Go Again) with style and panache, blues and soul are not really her strength, and she sits out on most of the R&B numbers in the program. Her contribution on crowd-pleasing finale What’d I Say is self-effacing to a fault, and it only reinforces the overall absence of the kind of raw vocal power supplied by Charles (and the Raelettes) on the original versions.
On the plus side, the Marsalis band compensates quite adequately for occasional lacklustre vocals, navigating the various nooks and crannies of Charles’ eclectic songbook with just the right combination of jazz and pop smarts. Some of these old warhorses have arguably been played half to death, but the band manages to breathe life into almost all of them with clever arrangements and spirited playing. Marsalis himself has never sounded better, and Nelson’s long-time harmonica player Mickey Raphael also provides some perfectly integrated accompaniment and fine solo work, to the extent that the listener might assume he was a band regular. Thanks largely to the instrumental work, there’s a satisfying amount of entertainment value on this release – even if major revelations are not forthcoming.