Mar 302011

We know some of you might be thinking, “Hold on, Willie and Wynton? Didn’t this album come out a few years ago?” Willie Nelson and Wynton Marsalis understand the possible confusion. They even prefaced this brand new album of Ray Charles cover hits by titling it Here We Go Again (also a track off the album, natch) in an attempt to clarify.

Back in 2007, Willie Nelson and Wynton Marsalis joined up for a two-night live show and created Two Men with the Blues. They found a connection as well as commercial success, so what seemed like a novelty cross-genre one-off became a lasting collaboration. In 2009, Nelson and Marsalis reunited, this time asking Norah Jones to join them at New York’s Lincoln Center. Two years later, the live album Here We Go Again: Celebrating the Genius of Ray Charles delivers the experience to all those who missed out.

Each number chosen for the concert creates a story of the beginning, end and re-birth of a relationship – albeit a relationship with quite a few jazz solos. Combining the stellar talents of Nelson and Jones’ vocals with Marsalis’ masterful trumpet (Marsalis even jumps in to sing a few lines here and there), the trio would like you to think that this album is a hybrid of genres. However, each song is unmistakably jazz. Marsalis is a virtuoso of the brass instrument, and the musicianship of his band a thing of wonder. After listening to their solos, you want to be in the room in order to appreciate the performance fully.

When Willie Nelson sings, he sings with wisdom that comes from years of experience. Every hardship he has encountered and all the places he has traveled to seem to flow out with his words. In this respect, he shares a lot in common with Ray Charles himself. With his own country and blues twang, the Red Headed Stranger does bring a certain element of crossover flavor, particularly on “Losing Hand” and “Busted.” On both songs, his southern drawl puts dimension into Charles’ lyrics. He doesn’t sing the words as much as speak them, weaving a story of being down and out all thanks to a woman. If there is anyone as believable as Ray Charles singing these two songs, it’s Willie. Still, Marsalis and his band shine so brightly you wonder why he didn’t arrange at least one of Charles’ songs as an instrumental to further showcase this mastery.

Norah Jones is only “featured” in the concert, and it’s a shame she can’t be utilized in every single song on the album.  She duets with Willie on two tracks (“Cryin’ Time” and “Here We Go Again”) and follows Nelson’s lead effortlessly. Though it was her first time with Marsalis, she has collaborated with Nelson several times in the past and the two feel like old friends sharing the stage. Jones is all at once tender, sweet and sultry when she performs. Singing only two songs on her own, “Come Rain or Come Shine” and “Makin’ Whoopee” stand out as flirty testaments to her own unique voice.  Just as Nelson uses his emotional range to tell tales of break-ups, Jones uses hers to help us remember why we fall in love in the first place.

When you put all these individual elements together in one room, a good time results. The three musicians are experts in their respective styles, but there are no divas on stage, only an enjoyment of music and pleasing a crowd. On the last song, “What’d I Say,” the audience is fully involved in the experience, clapping and hooting alongside the trio. In what you could imagine as a conservative crowd at Lincoln Center, they seem unable to control themselves. In the end it doesn’t matter that we may confuse their albums or that the trio isn’t shattering genres; it matters only that if Ray Charles were alive he’d be out in that audience hooting too.

Here We Go Again Tracklist:
01. Hallelujah I Love Her So
02. Come Rain or Come Shine
03. Unchain My Heart
04. Cryin’ Time
05. Losing Hand
06. Hit the Road Jack
07. I’m Moving On
08. Busted
09. Here We Go Again
10. Makin’ Whoopee
11. I Love You So Much (It Hurts)
12. What’d I Say

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