One Track Mind: Willie Nelson and Wynton Marsalis, "Losing Hand" (2011)


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Willie Nelson and Wynton Marsalis continue a stirringly offbeat musical dialogue begun with their 2008 release Two Men with the Blues, this time focusing on the music of Ray Charles.

Here We Go Again, issued last month by Blue Note, also includes several turns by Norah Jones—not to mention some tasty asides by saxophonist Walter Blanding and Nelson's harmonica player Mickey Raphael. But it's the interplay between Nelson and Marsalis, idiosyncratic and quintessentially American, that again provides the most intriguing moments—not perhaps more illuminating than “Losing Hand," a Jesse Stone song originally released in 1954 by Ray Charles and his Orchestra.

Nelson, and it's perhaps no surprise, seems right at home in this setting. It's Wynton Marsalis, all loosey goosey, who takes an opportunity on Here We Go Again, taken from a 2009 concert at the Lincoln Center's Rose Theater in New York City, to burst out of his shell. He's been fossilized in a kind of primordial jazz stance—suited up, horn in hand—for so long that you forget how talented Marsalis has always been.

Here, he cries and scronks, chortles and bleeks, sighs and flutters, pushing the tune into places where only voices typically go. He's as unbuttoned here, channeling the bustling, almost out-of-control sexuality of Charles, as he is stoic and staid elsewhere.

In the same way that Charles' music was a scrumptious gumbo of soul, country, gospel, rock and blues, “Losing Hand" combines but still allows for the separate enjoyment of both Nelson and Marsalis. The track both confirms Nelson's gruff command of the genre while it sparks some of the most impassioned playing Marsalis has done in ages.

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