Much Brass, a Bit of Twang and Plenty of Ray Charles
Willie Nelson and Wynton Marsalis first shared a stage at Frederick P. Rose Hall two years ago, finding common cause in the wide, slow river of American music. That interaction yielded an album, “Two Men With the Blues” (Blue Note), that flattered them equally. So there was recent precedent to draw on at the Rose Theater on Monday night, in the first of two sold-out concerts presented by Jazz at Lincoln Center.
To their credit, the headliners didn’t repeat themselves; they played just one song from the album. It was “That’s All,” by Merle Travis, and, as on the album, it appeared as a grace note. Instead, following the suggestion of Mr. Nelson’s manager, they played songs associated with Ray Charles, the artist who most credibly covered all the pertinent terrain: jazz, country, blues and gospel, along with R&B and soul.
This was a fine idea made finer by the inclusion of Norah Jones, whose style can suggest a well-tended middle ground between the home bases of Mr. Marsalis and Mr. Nelson. She emerged early on to sing “Come Rain or Come Shine,” taking adroit and thoughtful liberties, and stayed on to join Mr. Nelson on “You Are My Sunshine,” over a loping Latin rhythm. For the rest of the night, drifting on and offstage, she added hints of cool refinement and (to a lesser degree) sensuous comfort. But by and large it was a night for companionable tensions. Mr. Nelson, seated with an amplified acoustic guitar, sang in the appealingly modest, intractably casual style that has always been his calling card. Mr. Marsalis, armed with his trumpet and his quintet, advanced a dapper erudition.
Some of the best teamwork came on trudging, hard-luck fare like “Busted” and “Losing Hand.” But Mr. Nelson also worked small wonders with “Unchain My Heart” and “Crying Time,” which had Ms. Jones singing harmony.
The arrangements, by Mr. Marsalis and others, featured plenty of intricate maneuvers for trumpet and saxophone. At times this seemed at odds with the vocals: Mr. Nelson’s plain-spoken grace on “I Love You So Much (It Hurts)” was half obscured by the chromatic scrawl of Mr. Marsalis and the tenor saxophonist Walter Blanding. On some other tunes the solo sections stretched long enough that the singers appeared stranded, despite engaging work by the soloists, including Mr. Nelson’s harmonica player, Mickey Raphael.
And a few anticipated highlights fell short. “Here We Go Again,” which Ms. Jones recorded with Charles shortly before he died in 2004, sounded unrehearsed. “What’d I Say” and “Hit the Road Jack” were rousing but contrived. And the absence of “Georgia on My Mind” felt like a missed chance, though it appears on “Two Men With the Blues.” (It’s the song that best connects Mr. Nelson to Charles, and Ms. Jones could have nailed it.)But the concert’s core results were compelling, largely because of a workhorse rhythm section: Dan Nimmer on piano, Carlos Henriquez on bass and Ali Jackson on drums. Whatever the groove, they were sharp and committed, making the others sound better. With that foundation, Mr. Nelson and Mr. Marsalis were free to move as far in each other’s direction as needed, with every ounce of their easy aplomb.