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Willie Nelson and Wynton Marsalis play the music of Ray Charles(TV)
A living legend interprets a timeless one as Willie Nelson tackles the American songbook of the late, great Ray Charles, with a little help from jazz superstar Wynton Marsalis and the inimitable Norah Jones. Recorded live at New York's Frederick P. Rose Hall as part of the Jazz at Lincoln Center series, this exciting performance includes classics such as "Hit the Road, Jack," "Hallelujah (I Love Her So)," "Unchain My Heart" and more.
For more about Willie Nelson and Wynton Marsalis play the music of Ray Charles and the Willie Nelson and Wynton Marsalis play the music of Ray Charles Blu-ray release, see Willie Nelson and Wynton Marsalis play the music of Ray Charles Blu-ray Review published by Jeffrey Kauffman on November 9, 2009 where this Blu-ray release scored 4.5 out of 5.
Willie Nelson and Wynton Marsalis play the music of Ray Charles Blu-ray Review
Ray Charles' legacy lives on in this wonderful concert featuring an odd, but oddly effective, pairing of Willie and Wynton.
Reviewed by Jeffrey Kauffman, November 9, 2009
I don't mean to be unintentionally ironic, considering Ray Charles' handicap, when I say that the music business has thankfully been at least a little more color blind than a lot of other entertainment media. When theater and movies still had "colored circuits" for performers, not to mention actual segregated venues for audiences, at least a handful of African American musicians were able to muscle their way into the mainstream, especially in the genres of jazz and blues. Probably no man of color has been more influential or had such a lasting impact on a variety of popular music genres than Ray Charles, the incredibly soulful singer-pianist who started to make national headway as early as the mid-1950s, but who then went on to decades of international prominence with an array of chart hits than spanned an unusually vast stylistic universe. This splendid Jazz at Lincoln Center concert, hosted by the incredible Wynton Marsalis, featuers Willie Nelson as chief vocalist. That may seem like a case of strange bedfellows, not only with regard to Nelson and Marsalis, but to Charles' heritage itself, until one remembers that one of Charles' major national breakthroughs in the early 1960's was his two volumes of Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music, an epochal pair that many historians credit with first popularizing C&W sounds for the public at large.
Willie Nelson and Wynton Marsalis Play the Music of Ray Charles isn't just your average concert recording. Marsalis credits Nelson's manager Mark Rothbaum with selecting the repertoire included in this February 2009 taping, and the stars have programmed the 15 songs in order to tell a story, as Wynton mentions, of love found, love lost and love found again. The playlist features:
• Hallelujah, I Love Her So
• You Are My Sunshine
• Come Rain or Come Shine
• Unchain My Heart
• Crying Time
• Losing Hand
• Hit the Road, Jack
• I'm Moving On
• You Don't Know Me
• Here We Go Again
• Makin' Whoopee
• I Love You So Much (It Hurts)
• What'd I Say?
• That's All
If Willie is obviously outclassed on an instrumental level (he in fact looks like he's not even really playing the guitar a lot of the time), offering competent if not inspired solos on several more blues-oriented numbers, he brings his appealingly rumpled voice to the proceedings, something that, as strange as it may seem, actually is quite redolent of Ray himself at times. That growly, saxophone-like presence that was the hallmark of Charles' vocal style may not be completely inherent in Willie's more nasal tones, but the casual "crooning" style Willie offers up here seems perfectly in keeping with at least most of the songs chosen. Upping the vocal ante considerably is the delicious Norah Jones, who offers several nice duets with Willie, including a jumpy "You Are My Sunshine." Jones has the same casually relaxed approach that Willie does and their harmonizing, as on "Crying Time," is often quite mellifluous.
But the real fireworks here, musically speaking, come courtesy of Wynton and his ace band, including sax player Walter Blanding, pianist Dan Nimmer (who looks to be all of 12 if he's a day), bassist Carlos Henriquez and drummer Ali Jackson. Harmonica master Mickey Raphael guest stars on several numbers. These are all virtuouso musicians who not only play beautifully together and craft wonderfully astute solos (listen, for example, to the almost human voice squeals and moans Wyton coaxes from his muted trumpet on "Losing Hand" for a good example), more importantly they're all obviously listening to each other and just as obviously having a ball with what they're hearing. You can often see Jackson's eyebrows raise in astonishment as he almost winks at Henriquez during one of Wynton's blasts of fury. It makes this concert as much fun to watch as it is to listen to.
There's some great inventiveness in the arrangements as well. Something as familiar as "Hit the Road Jack" takes off into unexpected be-bop solos interspersed with fun group vocals by Jones, Marsalis and Blanding, with Willie offering little interpolations on the verses. Then Raphael brings the sound back to its soul-gospel roots with an inviting harp solo. It just helps to point up how varied Charles' approach and song choices were to begin with, offering musicians from backgrounds this disparate equal opportunities to strut their stuff. While some might wonder why "Georgia on My Mind" isn't included here, especially since Willie's version has become as well known as Ray's, the concert does hit a lot of the Charles songbook high points, including "What'd I Say?" and a really ferocious "Unchain My Heart."
Wynton Marsalis is, if anything, even more cross-generic than Charles. Able to play everything from Baroque classical masterpieces to avant-garde jazz, he displays both an easy confidence and an affable manner no matter what he's tackling. When combined with his unparalleled prowess as a soloist, he's an artist of unusual intelligence and profundity, here working territory that he's obviously loved since his childhood. People who first became aware of Charles (as incredibly as it may seem) through the Jamie Foxx biopic Ray would do well to check out this concert to see a very real heritage being passed down from generation to generation. It's not just a musical heritage, as amazing as that alone may be; it's actually something much deeper, a cultural tradition that proves that genius, no matter what its color, can succeed if given the right opportunities.
Willie Nelson and Wynton Marsalis play the music of Ray Charles Blu-ray, Video Quality
Willie Nelson and Wynton Marsalis Play Ray Charles arrives on Blu-ray with an above average VC-1 1080p transfer that still belies its (admittedly high-def) television roots from time to time. Originally filmed for and broadcast on cable's HD Net, this hour and a half concert does best in its amazingly detailed close-ups, several of which I have attempted to replicate here in my screencaptures. These up close and personal shots offer really stupdenous detail, everything from the weathered hands of Willie to the almost preternaturally smooth skin of Wynton. Finger smudges on Wynton's trumpet can also be seen quite clearly when the stage lights hit it just right. Colors are appealingly well saturated and very lifelike. There's not an eye popping palette to deal with here, though sometimes the stage is bathed in a very cool, resonant blue hue. Where the video image may disappoint some is in the group shots. For some reason these look a bit softer than the closeups, with a somewhat surprising lack of definition, perhaps hampered by the darkness in which the players find themselves. That said, the bulk of this excellent concert is filmed from medium close-ups to seemingly "in their laps" close-ups, so ultimately there's not a bunch to complain about here.
Willie Nelson and Wynton Marsalis play the music of Ray Charles Blu-ray, Audio Quality
The concert has been wonderfully recorded with two DTS HD-MA options, a 5.1 surround and a 2.0 stereo folddown. This is what recorded concerts should sound like but too seldom do. You'll hear the really forceful low end right off the bat on this piece when drummer Jackson sets the beat with his bass drum, and the subwoofer kicks in with punches you can virtually hear compress the air. Luckily the rest of the frequency ranges are similarly lively, with Marsalis' blistering trumpet soaring over the top of the massed band sound. Occasionally Nelson's guitar gets lost in the shuffle, but as I indicate above, I actually wonder in watching Willie's fingering at times if he's actually playing, at least some of the time. (Is there such a thing as "finger-synching"?). Dynamic range is also really good throughout this concert, with some of Jones' quieter moments as lovingly rendered as the more raucous, bluesy work of the entire band. The piano is especially warmly recorded, with Nimmer's hommages to Charles (and Charles' many acolytes, like Dr. John) cutting through the band sound with precision and nuance. I did some spot checking with the 2.0 folddown and it's certainly just fine for a stereo representation of this concert, but the 5.1 includes some excellent use of surround channels, where you'll distinctly hear, for example, Jones and Nelson up front, with the rest of the band filling the side and rear channels. It's a thrilling experience and one which projects the listener literally right into the middle of an incredible jam session.
Willie Nelson and Wynton Marsalis play the music of Ray Charles Blu-ray, Special Features and Extras
HD Net All Access (26:54) offers an HD backstage pass to the concert, as well as some very cogent commentary by Nelson, who obviously understands Charles' contributions to country and western music, and Marsalis, who is similarly knowledgeable about Ray's jazz and gospel proclivities. Norah Jones also talks about her participation in the project. Additionally, there is a photo gallery included.
Willie Nelson and Wynton Marsalis play the music of Ray Charles Blu-ray, Overall Score and Recommendation
Willie and Wynton may indeed seem like odd bedfellows, but their camaraderie is palpable throughout this concert. Charles was such a multifaceted musician himself that any tribute concert really needs to draw on a variety of genres in order to accurately represent all the great man achieved musically in his life. Having Jones and this crackerjack band is just the icing on the cake.
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