Wynton Marsalis & Eric Clapton Play the Blues (2011) will be available on dvd soon. It was shown this past week in Albuquerque. In it, the two seasoned bluesmen take the stage at Lincoln Center in New York City together with a back-up crew consisting of horns, strings, drums, and piano. Clapton is a true guitar hero and living legend, dating back to the British Invasion. Since then, he has somehow re-established himself every so often to remain in the foreground. Marsalis is also an icon, having performed with the most recognizable names in the modern Jazz pantheon. Their collaboration is unique in that it combines prestige with virtuosity. It also highlights Clapton’s mastery of the electric guitar, which holds its own and then some against trombone, trumpet, and clarinet, instruments that jazz favors.
The ensemble’s style is part New Orleans, part down-home, rugged blues. Improvs are always a left brain/right brain mystery, even rehearsed and recorded. They are an especially exciting component to live music. And so the numbers in the film move smoothly toward and away from either Clapton’s or Marsalis’s showmanship. The two maestros are well-matched. Each has trod a different path, but unite in this powerful, downbeat genre. Marsalis is the arranger and Clapton the dependable show-stopping soloist who, as he freely admits in the film, much prefers to communicate with riffs rather than words.
It is doubtful many have heard a rendition of Layla quite like what is seen and heard herein. It is slow and deeply moving. Careless Love is mostly a Bessie Smith classic, but again, this version is hard to match. Guest Taj Mahal sings a heartfelt Just a Closer Walk With Thee, breathing new life into a familiar gospel song. Clapton leads with both guitar and voice in a personal favorite, Chester Burnett’s Forty-Four. And several of the ten odd instrumentalists pitch in on the call-response chorus to Joe Turner’s Blues.
Albuquerque does not always make the list of towns that big-name musicians stop at on their tours. However, one can luck out at casinos with lots of yesterday’s sensations. Good local groups are out there on the weekends, too. But by and large, music-dvds and -downloads pick up the slack. At one time, music on film was a big deal. Obviously, that has changed. Wynton Marsalis & Eric Clapton Play the Blues might not, as was the case, draw enormous crowds. But it is pure quality and a friendly challenge to future musical prodigies.