Wynton Marsalis & Eric Clapton Play The Blues

Wynton Marsalis & Eric Clapton

Warner Bros., 2011

http://wyntonmarsalis.org

REVIEW BY: Josh Allen

ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED: 10/11/2011

“The fact of music is that it doesn't really belong to anyone or any group of people.  Music is music.  If you can play it, it belongs to you.”

-- Wynton Marsalis

When an album cover graces the names of two musical legends, it's difficult enough to pass by.  That effect is compounded when those two legends hail from two different corners of the musical universe.  Such is the case with Eric Clapton and Wynton Marsalis:  you can't help but ponder how the British blues rock of the former can mesh with the New Orleans jazz of the latter.  But as Marsalis astutely points out above, shying away from combining two styles only sells the power of music short.

Marsalis, Clapton, and a host of talented musicians accepted this challenge when they performed at the Lincoln Center in New York.  The band targets the intersection between early-era rhythm and blues and Dixieland jazz, which according to Marsalis, closely resembles the sound of King Oliver's Band in the early 1920s.  To achieve this goal, Marsalis and Clapton selected versatile musicians familiar with this particular style, but who could also adapt on cue to other styles like funk, Latin, and gospel, giving each and every personality a chance to shine brightly under the Lincoln Center lights.

And oh man, do these guys ooze chemistry.

The big band kicks off the set – which was selected by Clapton – with an animated rendition of “Ice Cream,” immediately establishing an aura of a multitalented, cohesive unit that cares about nothing except letting the instruments speak and having a damn good time.  Clapton leads off with the familiar phrase, “You scream, I scream / Everybody wants ice cream,” directly followed by a round robin of playful 16-bar solos – straight out of the adolescent ages of jazz.  The 10-song set covers a decent amount of ground in a short amount of time.  The opener, along with other wonderfully executed arrangements of “The Last Time” and closer “Corrine, Corrina,” emphasizes New Orleans-style jazz, while others are clearly more bluesy in structure, such as the toe-tapping “Kidman Blues” and utterly raucous “Forty-Four.”my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250

One confession:  I was overwhelmed with anticipation when I noticed that the set list included perhaps the most iconic Clapton tune, “Layla,” but was at first a touch underwhelmed by the result.  The instrumentation is surely an interesting twist, making it soulful beyond belief.  However, the tempo is even slower than Unplugged's rendition, and the surrounding accents of clarinet and trumpet around Clapton's familiar guitar picking and lyrics seem a touch out of place.  Nonetheless, “Layla” does feature one of the most genuine moments on the DVD version of the concert, as Marsalis watches Clapton's masterful guitar work while wryly smiling and shaking his head in disbelief, only to follow by injecting a soulful solo of his own on trumpet, to which Clapton faintly can be heard murmuring “Yeah!” in assent.  Needless to say, it grows on you quickly.

It's clear throughout the album that each member has his own specific, irreplaceable niche within the thick texture of the big band sound, but some soloists jump out more than others.  Victor Goines, whom Marsalis praises as “the last of the great Creole clarinetists,” and trombonist Chris Crenshaw shine particularly brightly with outstanding solos, the latter also taking charge of the vocals on “Joliet Bound.”  Guest vocalist Taj Mahal graces the stage to bellow the show's closing two songs, including the gospel tune, “Just A Closer Walk With Thee.”  And oh, by the way, Marsalis on trumpet and Clapton on guitar and vocals aren't too bad, either.

And if just audio isn't enough for you, the tastefully shot DVD places faces with instruments.  In addition, it boasts more complete footage of the concert, a couple of featurettes that peek into the three days of rehearsal that preceded the show, and a few anecdotes and pearls of wisdom from the narrating Marsalis.

Jazz and blues share common ancestry in early-mid 20th century music, but it takes special musicians to make the two genres blend together.  Marsalis, Clapton, and company are able to exceed expectations in Wynton Marsalis & Eric Clapton Play The Blues.  But would you expect anything less from two legends and a supporting cast all at the top of their game?

Rating: A

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