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Wynton Marsalis & Eric Clapton: Play the Blues: Live From Jazz at Lincoln Center

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In and around jazz and blues, there’s much more talk of purism than there are actual instances of it. When you hear jazz that flaunts a precise, ardent devotion to history you know it, and suddenly so much music that seemed old can be recognized as new. To accurately capture the spirit and technique of art from a removed time and place is much harder than it seems.

It’s within this historical reverence that trumpeter and Jazz at Lincoln Center artistic director Wynton Marsalis thrives alongside Eric Clapton, the guitar god whose commitment to American music extends far beyond blues-rock. (His acoustic homages to Robert Johnson, for one, are worthy of a period film.) The pair’s new 10-track CD, also available as a CD/DVD set, documents their collaborations over three nights in April at Jazz at Lincoln Center’s Rose Theater, one evening of which was JALC’s spring fundraising gala.

The arrangements and overall aesthetic were shaped by Marsalis, who sought to meld jump-blues with the traditional jazz of his beloved New Orleans; the band, filled out by seven JALC regulars and Clapton’s longtime keyboardist Chris Stainton, was reportedly inspired in format by King Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band. Clapton chose the set list, and went for balance instead of pretentious obscurity: Southern standards (“Just a Closer Walk With Thee” and “Corrine, Corrina,” both with guest vocalist Taj Mahal) and W.C. Handy staples (“Careless Love,” “Joe Turner’s Blues”) buttress prewar guitar material (“Kidman Blues,” “Joliet Bound”) and a bit of Clapton’s cherished Chicago blues, in this case Howlin’ Wolf’s “Forty-Four.” Culturally savvy histrionics? Maybe. But the craftsmanship is stunning, and that counts for more than Clapton and Marsalis are usually given credit.

Marsalis’ arranging grants this compact vernacular music postbop’s length and opportunity for individual exploration. A stirring, clarion polyphony introduces, concludes and bolsters those solo spots, which come early and often and almost always deliver. If this were on vinyl, you could drop the needle at random and catch someone killing mid-chorus: say, banjoist Don Vappie’s stop-time burn and Carlos Henriquez’s near-rockabilly slapped bass on “Ice Cream,” and any number of singing or growling excursions from trumpeter Marcus Printup, clarinetist Victor Goines and trombonist Chris Crenshaw, who dutifully sings “Joliet Bound” as Clapton channels Memphis Minnie. As for the marquee names, Marsalis mostly supports while giving Clapton ample room to bend strings. His solos help fulfill Marsalis’ planned jump-blues affectation: The guitarist’s tone on his Gibson semi-hollowbody is gruff and hearty, with just a touch of organic tube overdrive around its edges, and his phrasing is even flintier than usual. In short, T-Bone Walker and early B.B. King are good touchstones.

As a vocalist, Clapton has aged like every bluesman hopes to, gaining grit and incorporating more gut into the attack. This is especially evident on “Layla,” recast by Marsalis as a New Orleans dirge that swings during the solos. I was at the final show in New York, and I almost resented its inclusion at the time: a pop bonus for the laypeople, most of whom were there to see Slowhand in a rare theater-venue appearance. On record it’s my favorite cut, a molasses drip of six-string ache and sky-scraping collective improvisation.

Originally Published