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Wynton Marsalis & Eric Clapton @ JALC

April 9, 2011; Rose Theater, Jazz at Lincoln Center, New York, N.Y.

Wynton Marsalis & Eric Clapton "Play the Blues" at Jazz at Lincoln Center
Wynton Marsalis, Eric Clapton & Taj Mahal at Jazz at Lincoln Center

The blues is perhaps the most versatile, adaptable musical form in the history of organized sound; that is its most astonishing and enduring asset. It’s big enough and pliable enough to bond musicians both learned and intuitive, acoustic and electric, from nations on opposing sides of the sea.

That was the thesis of “Wynton Marsalis & Eric Clapton Play the Blues,” a series of concerts that took place at Jazz at Lincoln Center’s Rose Theater April 7-9. (The first show acted as a gala fundraising event for JALC.) Clapton picked the tunes-mostly prewar record-hound material by W.C. Handy, Louis Armstrong and others-while Marsalis arranged them for a 10-piece format that evoked tent-show-era New Orleans. (The ensemble was, as indicated in the program notes, assembled in the image of King Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band.) As experienced on April 9, this collaboration was a very good idea, expertly executed.

Its success boiled down to shared philosophy. Both Clapton and Marsalis have been, at one time or another, radical purists in their allegiance to this American bedrock: Marsalis as the brash, young NOLA-raised trumpeter, letting loose in interviews about jazz’s forgotten fundamentals; Clapton fleeing the Yardbirds for John Mayall when pop infringed on his devotion to hard blues. Both men have taken considerable heat for their willingness to mine the past and, some would say, engage in cultural theatrics, but their common devotion to history gave this program a focused, manageable concept. It worked beautifully without leaning too much on pure star power or pop hits.

Marsalis clearly had the upper hand, so to speak. Clapton, in a suit fit for the JALC Orchestra, was in Marsalis’ home, with (mostly) his band, playing his charts. It was a trial-by-fire situation that isn’t exactly uncommon: a famous “feel” player testing his mettle among theoretically savvy, technically masterful jazz musicians. Granted, Clapton wasn’t required to blow over Wayne Shorter changes, but the guitarist was clearly treading on the boundaries of his comfort zone. He seemed to thrive there, and he smiled often. On “Ice Cream,” he comped as if subbing for Freddie Green; on a Gibson ES-335 rather than his go-to Fender Stratocaster-Clapton hasn’t been famously associated with the 335 since the ’60s-he often subsumed his history-making chops into the collective improvisation of traditional jazz. (His vocals were sometimes absorbed into the band’s informal ensemble singing.) Selections like the New Orleans funeral staple “Just a Closer Walk With Thee” allowed Clapton to negotiate a strain of American roots music very different from his beloved Chicago-style 12-bar. Expectedly, Marsalis and company captured the underpinnings of hot jazz with a historian’s exactitude: the Bechet- and Dodds-like licorice stick of Victor Goines; Don Vappie on Johnny St. Cyr-style banjo; the plunger-muted trombone of Chris Crenshaw; the shuffles and snare rhythms and stop-time solos-everything was in its place.

For Clapton to seamlessly coexist there was a sign of strength. He didn’t need to be bolstered, as Marsalis and company have done during collaborations with Willie Nelson. He could hang with the chaps. (And if his playing didn’t prove that he was a serious-minded, hard-working musician, Marsalis reminded the audience of this more than once during the show, in a way that was well-meaning but nearly condescending.)

But Marsalis’ charts didn’t obscure the main attraction, and there was opportunity for Clapton to sound like himself. (He didn’t do his best Eddie Lang, in other words.) As is the culture of JALC groups, Marsalis largely deferred the spotlight as a player. His arrangements offered round after round of solos, without much in the way of cutting or interacting outside the polyphony.

When it was Clapton’s turn, ears perked up: He played with a dry, meaty, slightly dirty tone, alternating his trademark bends high on the neck with notey passages in the middle range. (Very notey, actually; edging toward Buddy Guy territory.) On Howlin’ Wolf’s “Forty-Four,” where the band met Clapton more than vice versa, the guitarist took a few choruses that tickled Marsalis. On “Joe Turner’s Blues,” Clapton’s B.B. King-isms got to the trumpeter. In the guitarist’s playing you could hear a lifetime of turning over the I, IV and V, trying to fill in the nooks of a harmony so simple but filled with infinite possibilities.

His singing, too, impressed. Not unlike the bluesmen he genuflects before, age has in many ways benefitted Clapton the singer: On “The Last Time” his voice boasted a girth and a rasp around its edges that you won’t hear on his ’60s and ’70s recordings. (Still, that body and grit wasn’t much compared to that of Taj Mahal, who opened the show solo and guested at its end.)

There was, a bit after the program’s midpoint, one hit, one pop concession. A deliberate, unhurried “Layla,” arranged by Marsalis at the very last minute after bassist Carlos Henriquez suggested including it, struck an effective balance between jazz-age New Orleans and Clapton’s now-definitive MTV Unplugged version.

It was a nice, familiar, crowd-pleasing touch, but it wasn’t necessary.

Originally Published