Over the last several years, Eric Clapton has made a point of performing with, and collaborating on albums with, different notables from the world of music, particularly legendary blues musicians. 2011’s Wynton Marsalis & Eric Clapton Play the Blues: Live from Jazz at Lincoln Center is notable for a couple of differences between it and similar collaborations. First, while Wynton Marsalis may be a notable musician, he’s not a legend on the scale of B.B. King or J.J. Cale, both of whom had a significant impact on Clapton’s work even before he performed with them; Marsalis is actually a fair bit younger than Clapton. Further, Marsalis is apparently more of a jazz musician than a blues musician (I’ll admit to being unfamiliar with his work prior to this, as I’m not a big jazz fan.) And, unlike Riding with the King or The Road to Escondido, this is a live album, not a studio album.
Of course, none of that in any implies that this is a bad album. I wasn’t sure what to expect from it, but what I got was an album that shows a bit of a different side to Clapton; while he’s dedicated himself more to blues than rock in recent decades, Play the Blues has a much jazzier influence than his other works. I wouldn’t want a music catalog dominated by jazz — jazz is good, but I’m of the “a little goes a long way” persuasion — but ten tracks of jazzy blues suits me just fine.
And you can tell Marsalis and Clapton are having fun here. The album opens up with “Ice Cream”, a track which is based on the children’s rhyme, and its enthusiasm and irreverence carries through most of the other songs in the performance. Most of the tracks are a lot faster-paced than more traditional blues music, and there’s a lot of piano work in with Clapton’s guitar and Marsalis’s trumpet. It’s fun. It’s just plain fun. And even an untrained ear can hear the skill in the playing.
The album mostly consists of covers of classic blues and jazz songs, but there is a new version of Clapton’s signature song “Layla”. More orchestrated and bluesier than the version from Unplugged, it’s a nice mid-point between the original and the acoustic version; Clapton’s not wailing on the guitar as he did with Derek & the Dominoes, but there’s still a lot of frenetic finger play on the electric guitar, and Marsalis’s trumpet provides a nice counterpoint. Amusingly, according to the liner notes, this is the one song that wasn’t hand-picked by Clapton, and was a request from the bass player, Carlos Henriquez. Veteran bluesman Taj Mahal joins on the last two tracks of the album, “Just a Closer Walk With Thee” and “Corrine, Corrina”, and these songs have a more traditional blues feel to them. Taj Mahal’s voice is still strong after all these years, and everything blends together well in the two tracks.
It’s worth noting that these are not short tracks. Only three songs on the album are around the standard four minutes in length; most are around seven minutes, and a few are longer yet. The two Taj Mahal tracks come in at 12:20 and 10:20 respectively. And unlike many live albums, this isn’t due to recording audience applause; there’s a bit of that at each end, but it’s not very long; as soon as one song ends, the band gives a quick “thank you” and moves on to the next. Because of this, there’s time in each song to devote to the various players, and even those who aren’t “name” musicians get their moment to shine. “Just a Closer Walk to Thee” has an extensive drum solo, and the other musicians have their moments in different tracks.
I’m usually not one for live albums; there’s a tendency for the musicians to turn in less polished performances (often due to being drunk), the recording usually isn’t as clear, and a lot of time is wasted on the audience reaction. None of that applies here. Every note is crystal clear, songs follow each other quickly, and the performances are flawless (impressive considering they apparently only had three days to rehearse). Wynton Marsalis & Eric Clapton Play the Blues is a solid album by any measure.