Album review: Live from Jazz at Lincoln Centre/Wynton Marsalis and Eric Clapton

Posted: January 9, 2012 in Album review: jazz
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At the outset I would like to admit I have had a lifelong battle with Eric Clapton. He and I have parted ways so many times – sometimes it’s been my fault, sometimes it’s been his: his maddening blues purism, his spotty quality control, his awful sentimentalism. This is the man who left The Yardbirds because they were going too “pop”, the man who left Cream because they were messing too much with his beloved blues standards, the man who left Blind Faith because he didn’t like their choice of dry-cleaner… who knows.

In jazz we also have an arch-conservative: the trumpeter Wynton Marsalis, who was the braying voice of purism in jazz for a while, offering his starched opinions left right and centre. As producer and commentator on Ken Burn’s 2001 doco “Jazz”, he virtually ruined it by almost entirely negating free-jazz and jazz-rock fusion, bending the whole series to his narrow view.

What is doubly maddening about both these men is that they are both close to genius in their own way, and have inspired millions the world over.

So what happens when these two brilliant fuddy-duddies decide to play some blues together? In April this year, Marsalis and Clapton held a series of concerts at New York’s Lincoln Centre: Clapton picked the tunes, Marsalis arranged and ran the band. The blues has been around for over a century now, so which era did they choose for their model? The electric 50s? The jazzy 40s? No, they went way back to the 1920s, Marsalis looking to King Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band (plus piano and yes, guitar) as his template. It really should have been one big purist yawn.

But from the crazy ragtime cacophony of the opener, Louis Armstrong’s “Ice Cream”, Play the Blues – Live from Jazz at Lincoln Centre is a blast. The band shakes and rattles, the soloists jump (especially clarinettist Victor Goines who shines throughout the set) and Eric C does his best Louis A vocal. They sound like they are jamming, a little tipsy, in someone’s apartment. Clapton is not at home in his solo – it is all too fast for Slowhand, and he doesn’t play the changes right. But by the next tune, Howlin’ Wolf’s “Forty Four”, he is in his element and remains so till the end of the album.

The Wolf tune and Clapton’s own “Layla” (requested by a band member) are the two non-antique pieces here, but Marsalis’ sly arrangements paint them both in chocolate and tobacco 1920’s colours – the first a slowed rhumba and “Layla” a drowsy New Orleans funeral march. His own playing on the set, despite the usual irritating Marsalisisms, is full of beans and (almost) relaxed. His band, obviously modern jazz masters (hints of post-bop here and there) rein in their chops and overlay a new set of chops for this gig: this is not merely ‘authentic’ (that awful word) but real music played now. As Marsalis stated “We wanted these concerts to sound like people playing music they know and love, not like a project”.

Roots-music legend Taj Mahal guests on the final two cuts, “Corrine, Corrina” and the hymn “Just a Closer Walk with Thee”. Mahal has made a career out of keeping the ancient roots of the blues tree alive; he always seemed to step onto a stage out of a time machine. His old, old, woodgrained vocal make these two pieces really live in the moment. It would have been nice to hear more – the DVD apparently has an additional “Stagger Lee” from Taj.

Did the world need this album right now? Is Play the Blues – Live from Jazz at Lincoln Centre really any more than an eccentric indulgence for two artists who really don’t need the money? We can answer these questions with words, but the real answer lies in the notes of this performance. And this music can – as it always has – speak for itself with no help at all.

Published August 2011 on liveguide.com.au

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