Monday, October 17, 2011

Clapton & Marsalis Play the Blues - Live at Jazz at Lincoln Center

Some music, musicians, songwriters and composers are truly difficult for me to write about. While many of the names in that list are from popular music that I grew up listening to, music that resonates for me in extremely subjective ways, most are masters of their art. 

This post is a first listen to the new release from two kings of music. Wynton Marsalis. Eric Clapton. Playing the blues. Together. With a horn and banjo band. New Orleans style.  

I got introduced to jazz as a young child from the Dancehall and Dixie music that was a big hit with my parent’s generation. While it was Moody Blues and Lynnyrd Skynnyrd on one hand, it was Earl Hines and Rhapsody in Blue on the other. Trying to make sense of the blues in the 80’s and 90’s in urban India was not difficult for a generation that couldn’t figure out a lot of things happening around them. With more than one failed revolution behind us, and a world eager to jump on to a materialistic bandwagon powered by young men in designer khadi bandgallahs and jodhpurs, the thinking-feeling citizen had begun the slow journey to extinction. We would wait for every new album from Eric Clapton (those were his bad years, and every new release was a disappointment which we denied) and Pink Floyd to hit the Indian markets, or tape it on to audio cassettes from vinyls brought by someone returning from Europe or the States.

This was also the age of short wave radios, Binaca Geetmala, Radio Moscow, the news in Special English, and the Voice of America. The unforgettable voice of Willis Connover would be like a beacon of hope as I tuned into Jazz Hour every night on VOA, to discover the magical language of music, one that transcended religion, color, class and country. It was on the Jazz Hour that I first heard Wynton Marsalis. Years later, I would find his first album in an Indian store as an Indian release, and I was able to put a pensive face to the even more thoughtful music I had heard on radio. I still remember the lineup of Herbie Hancock, Ron Carter, and Branford Marsalis backing the 19-year-old up on classics like Father Time, and Hesitation on that album, and wondering how gifted a person must be to be playing with with such masters at such a young age. 

Here is the first Wynton Marsalis album that I bought with money that my Mom gave me.

Over the years, the Jazz Hour and the romance of short wave radio gave way to the era of the Internet and podcasts, and I began subscribing to the Jazz From Lincoln Center feed. Each episode would open new doors for me, as I discovered new artists, new styles, new collaborations and new interpretations. But what thrilled me the most was to hear at the end of each show, The Creative Director of Jazz at the Lincoln Center is Wynton Marsalis. It reminded me of the rich baritone over the static on the radio saying, "This is the Jazz Hour, and I am Willis Connover." Childhood memories can be a powerful influence.

The music of Wynton Marsalis continued to thrill me through the podcasts of Jazz from Lincoln Center, and through his brilliant arrangement, collaborations and interpretations. I do not entirely agree with his position with regard to improvisation and innovation, but then every artist is entitled to his own creative vision. His music for the Ken Burns documentary series War, and his earlier work on Burns’ chronicle of the life of Jack Johnson, Unforgivable Blackness were highlights. In recent years, his collaboration with legendary guitarist, Paco De Lucia was another brilliant example of what happens when two masters bring their expertise to the table. His album with Willie Nelson proved to an all time hit with both jazz lovers and country music fans, with brilliance and virtuosity indelibly stamped on each track on that album. For me, Wynton Marsalis, like Herbie Hancock, was a modern legend about whom little could be said or written that does justice to the immensity of his creative talent. “This is the Jazz Hour, and I am Willis Connover.”

When I started finding official clips of Wynton Marsalis and Eric Clapton playing together in rehearsal for a show in April 2011, I was quite naturally excited, and hoped that this would get recorded and released. Marsalis had earlier guested on Eric Clapton’s 2010 album called Clapton. 

Eric Clapton has not only established himself as God for an entire generation of modern guitar fans, but has also done his bit to preserve the heritage of the classic guitar forms. The uncompromising quality of his collaborations with BB King and JJ Cale and his tribute to Robert Johnson are proof of his commitment to the master of the craft. Soon, there were cellphone videos of the public performance that led to the creation of the album that is playing in my ears now. 

Wynton Marsalis and Eric Clapton Play the Blues - Live from Jazz at Lincoln Center (Warner Bros) was released on September 13. 2011 and it took me till now to get my hands on a copy. 

The first thing you will probably need to do as the album starts out with Ice Cream is to tweak the equalizer settings. This is a live recording, and it is not a small backup band, but with a clarinet and a bass, and the recording seems to be not entirely a soundboard one, but with at least a couple of tracks picked up from the middle of the room, so it tends to get a little cluttered all across the spectrum. This applies whether or not you are a lover of Eric Clapton’s vocals.

Eric Clapton’s guitar sticks to the semi-acoustic sound to blend in with the Creole jazz sound of the ten man band. He plays a wide-bodied Gibson at this show instead of his signature strat, adding to the vintage sound of the band. If you have come looking for Eric Clapton songs, you will be disappointed. The only Eric Clapton classic is the Derek and the Dominos hit Layla, which was included in the set list on the request of bassist Carlos Henriquez. Like most of his recent outings, this set list is a musicologists delight, as it touches on the diverse roots of modern American music. You will journey through the plaintiff cry of the spiritual, the jump, the stride, and the dirge as you listen to the different tracks here. The last two tracks also feature Taj Mahal, a surprise guest at the show.

The almost Dixieland style solos are innovated on magnificently by all the band members, including the two frontmen, giving them a contemporary and innovative feel without losing the classic feel. Eric Clapton manages to infuse each of his solos with surprising restraint, only rarely letting himself go into his classic bends and octave climbs, returning to the tightly controlled riffs almost as if the previous phrase was a momentary weakness. 

Eric Clapton fans might find this fact a little distressing, since the music you hear is a little of Eric Clapton and a lot of history. This needs to be seen in perspective. You have a ten man band with each member being an icon in his field. The set list and the solos do justice to the skills of each of the performers, with some stellar flashes from Ali Jackson and Don Vappie, Carlos Henriquez and Dan Nimmer, apart from the two headliners. This album is not about Clapton or Marsalis. It is about the organic eloquence of a King Oliver style Creole Jazz band working a set of songs that cover a significant breadth of the blues, including brief glimpses of the changes that it has gone through across continents and decades.

Don Vappie on the banjo, Ali Jackson on drums, Dan Nimmer on piano, Chris Stainton on keyboards, and Carlos Henriques on bass act as the perfect foil to the clarinet of Victor Goines, Chris Crenshaw’s trombone, and Marcus Printup’s trumpet. 

It is very difficult to select favorite tracks from this rather academic celebration. Just a closer walk with thee stands out as my choice for the best track, with smoky vocals by Taj Mahal and blistering solos from Ali Jackson and Eric Clapton. Layla is a good example of what a good jazz band can do to a song that you would not have dreamt can be bettered upon. Howlin’ Wolf’s gun song Forty Four (with some nice guitar and trumpet duelling) and the Bessie Smith classic Careless Love are two other outstanding tracks on this album. 

With these two icons of the 70s and 80s going back to trace their musical roots, one can only hope that this will serve as good education for a generation whose greatest expressions of musical angst can be found in the lyricism of Eminem and the style quotient of Lady Gaga.


  1. Thanks. Was not aware of this CD. Two beautiful people playing together. Awesome!

  2. Wynton marsalis one of the finest and best trumpeter across the world :)
    I am gonna hear his "THINK OD ONE" again :)
    Wonderful post SUBH... difficult to write such things...

  3. Very interesting...awesome!

  4. Thanks, guys, I am so excited to meet other music lovers who share a similar taste in music as me, and to think that we had been each others networks all these days without being aware of it!


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