Two Men With the Blues with Norah Jones
When trumpeter Wynton Marsalis admonishes a member of the audience for only flying a Texas flag but not one from Louisiana, someone yells back “Laissez les Bon Temps Roulet!” bringing a smile to his face. It’s the second and final night of Willie and Wynton’s stand at the Rose Theater, and Marsalis’ button-up style belies his obvious mirth. His braid down to his septuagenarian ass, Willie strides out, his longtime riding partner/ harmonica player Mickey Raphael augmenting Wynton’s quintet of tenor saxophonist Walter Blanding, pianist Dan Nimmer, bassist Carlos Henriquez and drummer Ali Jackson into a septet.
What with the breakout success of the duo’s live album for Blue Note, Two Men With the Blues (to date selling over 100,000 copies) it was a no-brainer to have this not-so-odd couple duo reconvene. And on Blue Note’s 70th birthday, it couldn’t hurt to add the heavyweight sales/ featherweight pipes of Norah Jones to the mix. Recorded for both an upcoming CD and HD concert special, there’s little doubt that the trio will soon rack up even gaudier chart positions. Add the fact that both concerts were a celebration of Ray Charles’s music and all of its genre fence-busting (and color-blind) proclivities, and the synergy was palpable.
And yet, a third wheel remains a third wheel. For all of Norah Jones’s vocal iridescence on record, there is not a drop of gutbucket, field holler, or growl in that throat of hers. Despite the native Texan’s lifelong admiration for the red-headed stranger (even dubbing her country side project The Little Willies), when she and Willie dueted on numbers like “You Are My Sunshine” and “Here We Go Again,” her clarity was undermined as she swallowed the end of her lines. The rapport was stronger when Willie ambled off-stage, leaving Jones and Marsalis to toy with “You Don’t Know Me” and “Makin’ Whoopee.”
Thankfully, the septet’s instrumental interplay covered any vocal hiccups. For “Sunshine,” Willie leapt up the frets while Wynton growled and squawked. While Mickey Raphael’s harmonica remains a curio in country music — despite three-plus decades of backing Willie — it’s downright anomalous in a jazz setting, unable to find much breathing room in the registers between sax and trumpet. Yet Raphael picked his spots expertly: jaunty on “Hit the Road Jack,” chugging through “I’m Moving On.” On “Unchain My Heart” and its rollicking Latin tempo, Marsalis both triple-timed and dragged just behind the beat on his solo, beating Willie at his own game. And the two heavyweights went phrase for phrase on the middle section of “Busted,” with plenty of space for two state flags to fly. — Andy Beta