On a drizzly overcast evening in Manhattan, the jazz cognoscenti and fans of guitarist Eric Clapton descended onto the elegant Rose Theater, home of Jazz at Lincoln Center, for an evening of uplifting "hot" jazz featuring the iconic blues and rock guitarist.
The evening's opening act was a solo performance by blues legend Taj Mahal. Dressed in a black suit with a wide rimmed black hat, Mahal warmed up the audience with his unique patois of rootsy music. Starting off with a song that had Hawaiian influences aptly titled "Hula Blues," moving through a version of the Mississippi John Hurt's classic "Stagger Lee" and onto his own "Spooky Blues," Mahal's voice ranged from sweet and melodic to gruff and gravelly at times reminiscent of the late R.L. Burnside. He is a master of the guitar/vocal blues format for which he is justly famous.
For Eric Clapton, who recently celebrated his 66th birthday, it turned out to be a validating concert of sorts. The guitar "god," as he is known by some of his more ardent followers, is clearly a paragon of the rock and blues genre. It could be argued that he, together with fellow Brit Jeff Beck and the inimitable Jimi Hendrix, form a triumvirate that inextricably influenced scores of would be guitarists for generations.
Although Clapton has played with veteran jazz musicians in the past, most notably a 1997 tour with David Sanborn, Marcus Miller, Joe Sample and Steve Gadd, that music was primarily tailored to fit his blues oriented style and did little to bridge the gap between genres.
On this evening, Mr. Clapton was joined by the maestro Wynton Marsalis and his regular Jazz at Lincoln Center Quintet made up of Chris Crenshaw on trombone, Victor Goines on clarinet, Ali Jackson on drums, Dan Nimmer on piano, and Carlos Henriquez on bass. In addition to this core group were the talented Marcus Printup on trumpet and the New Orleans banjoist Don Vappie, of Creole Jazz Serenaders fame, as well as Mr. Clapton's old time collaborator Chris Stainton on keyboards.
These musicians joyously reveled in aiding Mr. Clapton's exploration into the depths of New Orlean's and southern-based blues and jazz. The repertoire was hand picked by Mr. Clapton and deftly arranged by Mr. Marsalis. It featured songs from W.C. Handy, Charles Arthur Burnett better known as "Howlin' Wolf," "Big Maceo" Merriweather and Louis Armstrong. The veteran troubadour played and sang with a joyous spontaneity and playful abandon that was wonderful to behold.
The set started off with "Ice Cream, Ice Cream." The entire ensemble sang aloud in child-like cadence over a cacophony of horns and rhythm in true New Orleans style swing. Mr. Marsalis's trumpet solo echoed the sounds of Louis Armstrong, lending authenticity to this effort.
On Howlin's Wolf's "Forty-Four" Mr. Clapton's voice, while not as authentically raspy as Taj Mahal's, had its own charm as he picked penetrating guitar licks with hammering accent notes on his semi-hollow bodied guitar, over the tight, brassy sounds of the Jazz at Lincoln Center's band. Chris Crenshaw demonstrated his enormous talent on the trombone with his own emotive solo.
Throughout the show Mr. Clapton was clearly having a grand old time. He has a deliberate, low-keyed approach, and in this instance it was cathartic in the sense that it allowed him to be fully integrated in the musical experience -- an integral part of the band and not its star. Despite his self-proclaimed nervousness, it was his surrender to this music and the band's unequivocal acceptance of him that made it work so brilliantly.
The band executed "Joe Turner's Blues" and "Louis Armstrong's "I'm Not Rough" with soaring clarinet solos by Victor Goines. Chris Crenshaw showed that he is well versed in the tradition of his horn, using a plunger mute in the style of the great "Tricky" Sam Nanton. On "Careless Love" the band cooked and Mr. Clapton let loose with a fine blues rooted solo. When it was his turn, the trumpeter Marcus Printup took flight in the higher register of his horn.
To his credit, Mr. Marsalis played a distinctly subdued roll, preferring to let the spotlight shine on his guest and his band. Mr. Clapton and Mr. Marsalis sat next to each other on stage and their interplay was supportive, complimentary and genuine. Mr. Clapton spoke of his appreciation of the opportunity to play with such talented musicians. Despite his stature, Mr. Clapton is still apparently in awe of the dedicated jazz musician and jazz. To paraphrase him, '... there is something about jazz and there always will be in my heart, that puts it up there with the gods.'
The highlight of the evening for the audience was the unexpected inclusion of Mr. Clapton's signature song "Layla," arranged by Mr. Marsalis in a New Orlean's jazz style resplendent with horns and banjo.
The slow sauntering beat allowed Mr. Clapton to sing his deeply personal lyrics with unrestrained passion as he played some of his most stirring and heartfelt arpeggios on his blonde hollow bodied guitar. Mr. Marsalis was perhaps his most emotive on this trumpet solo following Mr. Clapton's lead, and eventually the two traded licks for a short while before the coda. The band did a smokin' rendition of the old train song "Joliet Bound" with Mr. Clapton singing an playing slide-like licks in great form, as the band let loose in a carefree celebration of just getting' down.
The finale brought Taj Mahal back onstage with the group and featured a New Orlean's Funeral march, the traditional, "Just a Closer Walk With Thee." Expertly played by the JALC orchestra, Taj Mahal managed to evoke the odd juxtaposition of solemn reverence and hopeful joy that accompanies New Orlean's funeral marches.
The encore was "Corrine, Corrina," which featured Taj on banjo and a stirring display of technical virtuosity by the drummer Ali Jackson who made one tambourine sound like a full trap set.
Eric Clapton's foray into the roots of early jazz and its undeniable linkage to the blues was a rousing success and further affirms Mr. Clapton as a truly versatile musician.
Musicians: Eric Clapton (guitar and vocals); Wynton Marsalis (trumpet); Marcus Printup (trumpet); Chris Crenshaw (trombone); Victor Goines (clarinet); Dan Nimmer (piano); Carlos Henriquez (Bass); Ali Jackson (drums); Chris Stainton (keyboards) and Don Vappie (banjo) with special guest Taj Mahal (guitars, banjo and vocals).
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