Wynton Marsalis & Eric Clapton – Play The Blues, Live From Jazz At Lincoln Center

Two giants on the stage, surrounded by an ace band, ripping through an impeccable set list of old blues songs. One CD, and a DVD, too. What a set, what a night! The enduring impression I have of hearing this is of a stage-full of incredibly gifted players, lost in the joy of both making music and paying homage to the history that gave it to us. Let’s hope that this is only the first of many collaborations between these two superlative players and their friends.

To say I loved this would be unparalleled understatement.

Ice Cream is a great old jump boogie in that old party style, bringing turn of the last century ‘jass’ one hundred years into the future. Glorious. Lots of solo turns, and each is phenomenal. If you’re not tapping your foot along to this, stop listening now.

Move without much pause into the sweetly loping Forty-Four. Clapton’s vocals growl, just like they did on his From The Cradle record. The guitar is much more to the fore in this track, and that relentless piano echoing the snare drum is hypnotic. We get more huge solos, all tastefully dirty and suiting the song. The liner notes list this as written by Chester Burnett, but you might know him by the name Howlin’ Wolf. Or, if you’re an afficianado, maybe you know Roosevelt Sykes’ earlier take on it. So hot.

In the Notes On Play The Blues inside the booklet, Wynton describes WC Handy’s Joe Turner’s Blues here as a ‘southern slow drag,’ and that it sure is. It’s so sweet, playing at half speed is just as powerful as the finger-twisting speed of other tracks here. This is lazy afternoon music, hell, maybe even funeral march music.

Louis Armstrong’s The Last Time opens with a sweet clarinet, which makes way for a really fat-toned trumpet by Wynton. That must’ve been Clapton saying “yeah!” during the intro. The clarinet comes back and you can’t help but smile. The band members are surely enjoying it. The vocals ride in on a wave of piano, followed by just great instrumentation all around. These cats are just revelling in it. Hot damn.

W.C. Handy’s Careless Love is another slow stomper, though the horns in the background are lightly kinetic. A sweet mix of slow and agile. Clapton’s vocals mix perfectly with his bluesy guitar line, and holy hell what a solo! And that trumpet… I need to play this CD over and over and just let that horn seep into my blood. I do believe I will.

Head straight into the Kidman Blues, which double-times it straight into a dance jive that’ll make you move no matter what you’re doing otherwise. Fun! Stand-out here is the piano through the whole tune. There’s a wall of horns, they’re all yammering at once, but no one is stepping in the way of any other. Another huge guitar solo… all of it stunning.

A big, messy teaser intro leads into a dirge-like Layla. It takes the crowd a while to pick up the hint of what it is, but when they do, they love it. It’s interesting how well this song fits in with the surrounding standards and classic old blues. Clapton has played with variations of this track many times through the years. At this version’s pace, the tune becomes even more plaintive, even more pained. Clapton’s guitar solo is incendiary, and when Wynton takes over to solo, the tune starts to swing before sliding back. So cool.

Joliet Bound is pure old blues jamming from Memphis Minnie, with a propulsive beat like an old steam engine at full throttle. What a harrowing tale, and Chris Crenshaw’s vocals are great. “I’ve been drinking white lightning, it’s gone to my head” indeed. A great muted horn solo. I swear.

Then we’re swept to a New orleans side street as a funeral procession glides past, the band marching sweetly through Just A Closer Walk With Thee. Just let it wash over you. You’ll find yourself wishing it would never end. Taj Mahal’s vocals are also really great. Then, around the six and a half minute-mark, one of those great drum breakouts appears from the sadness, enough to make you shake your moneymaker and not care who was watching. From there the track takes off into a gleeful blast of happy jazz.

Ostensibly the concert ends here, though Mahal comes back for a jaunt through Corrine, Corinna, which is just a great party track. He even brings a banjo. Yeah, man. Yeah. You can surely tell the band can’t get enough, they’d play all night. This last volley is just gravy. Delicious, jazzy gravy.

Please. Buy This. Even if it’s the only jazz CD you’d own. Damn. This might be my album of the year.

***

And then I did it all over again, this time watching the DVD of the same performance. But the DVD is so much more than that!

Sure, we get all of the performances with mostly good camera-work (some of it does jump around on zoom disorientingly fast), and a bit more of the stage banter that was edited from the CD. That’s the part of shows like this that I love. The little stories between songs, the stuff of life that the final product wouldn’t otherwise give you.

It’s fun to watch these musicians ply their trade, but I still have to say that I’m glad I played the CD first. Sort of like when you’re glad you read the book before seeing the movie. It’s better when your mind takes in the music first, before the distractions of watching them move and play in the film takes over. The latter is much more passive. However you look at it, though, this stuff is BRILLIANT.

And as if that isn’t enough, there are patches of documentary-style footage as well, backstage shots of band members, with voices-overs from Wynton. One of the most poignant things he says, (I think it was during the end credits), is that to have all of these amazing musicians together, they were really trying to come from a place of quality. Make the most of it, you know? Right on, brother. Right on. It’d be so easy for these guys to get together, whip off some old songs like it weren’t no thing, and the crowd would still go nuts. I appreciate the time and effort they clearly put into this whole production. That’s the real gift to us, right there.

As a bonus track on the DVD, Taj Mahal comes back to the stage solo and rips off a pretty stellar version of Stagger Lee. On its own, this is really neat. It also seems a little out of context of the setting of full band we’d enjoyed for the whole show. Was it an afterthought? Were they standing around right after the band left the stage following Corrine, Corrina and somebody said, ‘hey, Taj, go play your cool version of that old song?’ Who knows. Who cares? But it doesn’t add a whole lot to the main experience.

Overall, the DVD is just as much fun to watch as the CD is to listen to… again, and again, and again, and…

Buy this set, already. Go on!

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