Ultracool country codger Willie Nelson, 77, and buttoned-downed uptown jazz preservationist Wynton Marsalis, 49, proved they had more in common than you might reckon on their debut collaboration, 2007's Two Men With the Blues. On their new album, Here We Go Again: Celebrating the Genius of Ray Charles, they've returned to Marsalis' home turf, New York's Lincoln Center, to celebrate the soulful country legacy of Ray Charles.
Ray is a natural meeting point for the pair. Like Nelson, Charles was a pigeonhole-defying artist with the entire American songbook at his disposal. Moreover, country only became the biggest sound in America once Charles introduced it to urban audiences on his groundbreaking 1962 albums, Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music (Volumes 1 and 2). As Nelson has put it: "He did more with that one album than any of us could have done, because he opened up country songs and country music with his flavor and his arrangements to millions of his fans."
Performing in the Allen Room, whose floor-to-very-high-ceiling windows offer a magical view of Central Park, Nelson and Marsalis paint a sophisticated portrait of Charles — though perhaps not in the way you'd first expect. It's Marsalis' exacting group that delivers the raunch, especially in "Hit the Road Jack" and "I'm Movin' On," while Nelson croons his dependable croon, not even trying to match Charles' sexy rasp.
The year before Norah Jones appeared on Ray Charles' final album, 2004's Genius Love Company, the jazz-pop star formed a group called the Little Willies, named affectionately after the Red-Headed Stranger and dedicated to jazz-inflected country classics. Her big Here We Go moment is a smoldering version of "Come Rain or Come Shine," and she and Willie wallow together wonderfully in the balladic bummerdom of Buck Owens' "Cryin' Time."
Marsalis and his band, with the brilliant addition of Willie's longtime harmonica honcho, Mickey Raphael, deliver a much-needed sizzle. Buoyed by a New Orleans-inspired bounce, Marsalis' group discovered sharp new colors in the dusty closet where "Unchain My Heart," "Busted," and "Hallelujah I Love Her So" had been put in storage. Willie may have brought the cool, but Marsalis is all about authority, a quality with which Ray Charles was more than a little familiar.
At the end of the night, it was Marsalis' inventive trumpet that most brightly answered Ray Charles' eternal musical question, "What'd I Say."