When Eric Clapton ditches his trusty Fender Stratocaster, his constant companion of almost five decades, for a wide body Gibson with its warm humbucker sound, you know something special is afoot. In April 2010, perhaps in celebration of spring, Clapton teamed up with jazz legend Wynton Marsalis, who is the artistic director of Jazz at Lincoln Center in New York, and eight members of his orchestra for a two-night show dedicated to the classic core of pre-World War II jazz and blues. Wynton Marsalis & Eric Clapton Play the Blues: Live from Jazz at Lincoln Center is a 10-song compilation distilled from that show which was released as an album in September.
There are no weak moments on this album, and it’s not just a showcase of two legends squaring off—trumpeter Marcus Printup, drummer Ali Jackson, pianist Dan Nimmer, trombonist Chris Crenshaw and everyone else in the line-up gets equally juicy parts, and everything comes together in a breathtaking, joyous and beautiful tribute to the foundations of jazz and blues. Things are helped greatly by the brilliant production quality, with each instrument’s timber and tone coming through with perfect clarity in the mix, which retains a strong flavour of the warm buzz of a concert hall.
The set opens with the crackling, jumpy, Louis Armstrong classic Ice cream. Marsalis, Clapton and the band pour the spirit of swing into the number, and you can clearly see the strong thread that binds Armstrong’s early jazz forays to Django Reinhardt and the swing movement that spread through Europe. Watch out for the rocking upright bass solo and the sharp banjo interlude that segues into Clapton and Don Vappie, the banjo player, locking into a frenzied rhythm.
Marsalis says in his liner notes to the album that they were trying to combine the “sound of an early blues jump-band with the sound of New Orleans jazz”—and he nails it. The instrumentation of the band is basically the same line-up as King Creole’s Jazz Band, the New Orleans ensemble that gave Armstrong the platform to define his genre, with the addition of an electric guitar and a piano.
The set list is a wildly entertaining historical tour of blues and jazz, from boogie-woogie to Chicago blues, and the band pulls it off effortlessly. In the Howlin’ Wolf song Forty-Four, a definitive Chicago blues number, the band strikes a plodding, sinister rhythm, brilliantly rendered by the guitar-horns-drums-piano combination. The horn sections sometimes cut above this hypnotic rhythm in sharp bursts that mimic the street fighting style of Chicago harp players, while Clapton growls through “I wore my 44 so long, I made my shoulder sore…” (referring, of course, to the large-bore .44 guns, legendary for their bulk).
Even in one of the rare 12-bar standards, Kidman Blues, the horns embellish the rhythm and threaten to explode out of the restrictions of the format.
The band plays the upbeat stuff and the slow, dragged-out numbers with equal aplomb.
In the gospel standard Just a Closer Walk with Thee, the legendary blues man Taj Mahal makes an appearance (as he does in another number, Corrine Corrina), with devastating effect. His rasping, groaning voice soars through the gospel melody and the lamenting horns like a freight train running through barren snowfields.
There is a tiny surprise for Clapton fans in the album too—a New Orleans funeral dirge version of Layla, Clapton’s magnum opus, but stripped of its most defining feature, the opening riff. You’ll be astonished at how well that works. Even the most jaded listener, his ears poisoned by 30,000 repetitions of Layla in pubs and bars, and on radio and MTV, will be moved.
Wynton Marsalis & Eric Clapton Play the Blues: Live from Jazz at Lincoln Center released worldwide in September, and is priced at Rs 395.