Wynton Marsalis & Eric Clapton – Play The Blues: Live From Jazz At Lincoln Center (Reprise DVD)

The cover photo along is a bit off-putting…Clapton and Marsalis dressed in black suits and ties, sitting down playing. The idea of these two getting together in such a staid environment as NYC’s Lincoln Center, dressed in their Sunday best doesn’t seem like the best setting for the blues. It’s hard to imagine Robert Johnson or Howlin’ Wolf laying down their best grooves under these conditions, but, hey, times have changed.

Of course Clapton is no stranger to blues, although he pays the bills with his rock and pop recordings. Marsalis comes from jazz, but, being from New Orleans, he’s never going to be far from the blues himself, so it’s natural that that’s where these two find their common musical ground.

The DVD starts out with a bit of backstage rehearsal footage with Marsalis talking over the shots, explaining briefly how these shows, recorded over three days, came about. Then it’s quickly on to the first tune, a rollicking New Orleans-style version of Ice Cream. The song serves as a vehicle to introduce the band with each musician taking a solo…Marsalis and Clapton along with Victor Goines (clarinet), Marcus Printup (second trumpet), Chris Crenshaw (trombone), Don Vappie (banjo), Chris Stainton (electric keyboards), Dan Nimmer (acoustic piano), Carlos Henriquez (bass) and Ali Jackson (drums).

Next comes a version of Howlin’ Wolf’s Forty-Four, sung by Clapton. Eric has never had a particularly strong voice, but as he has gotten older it sounds much better-suited for the blues and he sings here with plenty of power and expression. Clapton also takes a pretty good guitar solo near the end of the song as well.

Things slow down a bit with Joe Turner’s Blues. The whole band sings along and Clapton gets off a few B.B. King-style licks, but the tune drags on too long. Things pick up with The Last Time, an old tune associated with Louis Armstrong. Marsalis takes a fine trumpet solo and Clapton puts in another spirited vocal performance.

The remainder of the set is filled out by old blues tunes originally sung by the likes of Memphis Minnie and Bessie Smith.  Clapton takes time to talk to the audience about how thrilled and intimidated he is to be playing jazz with these musicians before leading them into Layla, which is done in the style of a New Orleans funeral march. The slowed down version of the rock classic works surprisingly well.

Blues singer Taj Mahal turns up to sing Just A Closer Walk With Thee and stays around for Corrine, Corrina and the bonus track, Stagger Lee. Taj is OK, but not really necessary. The important thing here is the musicians and how much they seem to be genuinely enjoying playing with each other. I admit I was sceptical about this disc…I’m not a big fan of most of Clapton’s work…but he and Marsalis get into a groove and, along with the best of the band, manage to make a darn good racket.

Marty Duda

Click here to watch Marsalis and Clapton perform KIdman Blues: