Willie Nelson stepped in for Natalie Cole, who canceled at the 11th-hour due to illness, to perform with Wynton Marsalis and his Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra at the Hollywood Bowl. By sheer serendipity, a live album by Wynton and Willie, “Two Men With the Blues” (Blue Note), was released Tuesday, making Wednesday’s concert a news event and a promotional bonus. Their joint appearance at the end of Wednesday’s concert, though, had a rather different, more thrown-together flavor than the album; Nelson, the jazziest of country music singers, curling his Texas twang around and away from tunes, using silence not unlike the late Shirley Horn, reverted to his softer, pussycat vocal persona, with gently funky solos on his trusty, endearing wreck of a guitar.
Playing strong, clear, soulful trumpet, Marsalis got the whole Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra involved in the act, sounding as if they were making up the charts on the fly. They did strike some sparks with the second-line spirit on “My Bucket’s Got a Hole in It” and big-band jamming on “Caldonia” — and Willie pulled off his best vocal in the encore with just a sextet, “That’s All.”
The Wynton and Willie segment nearly obscured one of the sharpest, more progressive sets that the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra has ever offered here, spotlighting some inventive selections from Ted Nash’s suite “Portrait in Seven Shades” and a wild excerpt from Marsalis’ recent jazz mass, “Abyssinian 200.” In its role as curator, the band revived a great, overlooked Oliver Nelson chart for a 1966 Jimmy Smith-Wes Montgomery album, “Down by the Riverside,” and played Benny Carter’s last ineffably haunting composition (written at 92), “Again and Again.”
Earlier, the piano prodigy from Kyrgyzstan, Eldar, flashed his fearsome technique from “Besame Mucho” all the way to a broiling, nearly atonal thing appropriately named “The Exorcist.”