Wynton Marsalis & Eric Clapton – Play the Blues (CD/DVD review)

Wynton Marsalis & Eric Clapton – Play the Blues – Live From Jazz At Lincoln Center (Reprise) CD review

Imagine if we owned a time machine and could transport Eric Clapton back to New Orleans in 1923, so he could jam with King Oliver’s band, or 1926, to play with Louis Armstrong’s Hot Five.  Of course, we’d have to throw Les Paul in the transporter as well, since the electric guitar hadn’t been invented yet, but you get the idea.   Play the Blues has a somewhat misleading title, since the blues their talking isn’t the kind pioneered by Robert Johnson or Muddy Waters, but even older than that –  Roaring Twenties-style, when jazz and blues were virtually one in the same.


Eric Clapton has always had strong ties to the blues – from his early years with the Yardbirds, John Mayall, and Cream, to his latter works like From the Cradle and Me & Mr. Johnson, he’s consistently been an ambassador for the genre.  Wynton Marsalis has taken a similar approach to jazz, doing tributes like Marsalis Plays Monk and Mr. Jelly Lord, while acting as its spokesperson in the popular Ken Burns’ miniseries Jazz.  When the two stalwarts came together for this concert, recorded live at Jazz at Lincoln Center, the pairing ends up closer to Marsalis’ turf than Clapton’s.  The lineup is basically classic Creole: Marsalis’ trumpet, accompanied by trombone, clarinet, banjo, bass, piano, and drums.  In fact, Clapton, with his electrified guitar, is the only link to more modern times.

Long-time Clapton fans may be taken aback at first – this is essentially classic jazz with electric guitar thrown in for good measure.  Clapton handles the lion’s share of the vocals, but his guitar playing is relegated to one of several soloists.  Many of the songs are period pieces from the likes of WC Handy, Bessie Smith and Louis Armstrong. They do throw in a Howlin’ Wolf classic “Forty-Four,” which does feature some stinging fretwork, and is probably the closest thing to familiar territory for Clapton.  Trombonist Chris Crenshaw turns in some soulful vocals on “Joliet Bound.”  Then, the band is joined by Taj Mahal, who sings on the New Orleans dirge “Just a Closer Walk With Thee” and “Corrine, Corrina”; his gritty vocals are a welcome change.  Possibly the only misstep is Clapton’s often re-arranged “Layla,” which here sounds like a funeral procession; it’s a novel concept, but wedged in-between all these classics, it just seems out of place.

The set comes with a DVD, which features all the songs from the CD, plus a bonus track of Taj Mahal performing a solo acoustic version of the blues standard “Stagger Lee” – a nice rendition, but it would’ve been better if he played with the full band.  Another advantage of the DVD is that you get longer breaks between songs with both Marsalis and Clapton telling stories to the audience.  Marsalis gets a good chuckle recounting a disagreement between him and Clapton over an arrangement, while Clapton admits hating to talk on stage (?).  You have to give him credit for stepping out of his comfort zone – there are times he looks a little nervous in this unfamiliar style.  But, his tasteful, and at times, fiery playing, certainly shows he belongs there.  And, if some longtime Clapton fan happens to purchase this and get exposed to classic jazz, it’s certainly a bonus.  –Tony Peters