The pairing of neoclassical-jazz maestro Wynton Marsalis with outlaw-country kingpin Willie Nelson is only confusing on the surface. The conceit behind Two Men With the Blues is that they have much more in common than just that, demonstrated via a joyous live performance of blues and standards. Circumstances favor Marsalis: The summit is on his turf (Jazz at Lincoln Center), with his full quintet (saxophonist Walter Blanding, pianist Dan Nimmer, bassist Carlos Henriquez, and drummer Ali Jackson). They perform “Caldonia,” for example, as a hard-swinging jump blues; even Mickey Raphael, Nelson’s longtime harmonica player, solos in that gutbucket fervor. Yet when Nelson unfurls his sonorous drawl, defying the instrumentalists’ rhythmic precision, it could suddenly be an Ernest Tubb tune.
Far from downplaying these contrasts, Marsalis and Nelson exploit them. On the slow blues “Night Life,” the trumpeter opens with an impassioned plunger-mute wail that could take paint off the walls; Nelson follows with a relaxed, conversational delivery. Willie also softens “Georgia on My Mind,” crooning along, barely above a whisper, to the band’s gospel jubilee. But if Blues is about melding (and flaunting) disparate approaches, it’s also about chemistry. The group’s mutual humor is apparent in Hank Williams’s “My Bucket’s Got a Hole in It” (Blanding and Nelson trade “sobbing” clarinet and guitar solos) or the sly honky-tonk “Bright Lights, Big City”; a shared sentimentality suffuses “Stardust” and “Basin Street Blues.” In that sense, this is an experiment to see how far musical bonds can stretch. Sure, the novelty helps, and if it recurs too often, the glee of hearing Nelson and Marsalis mesh will diminish. But hearing once how they play with and against each other is a real treat.