When Wynton Marsalis plays the blues he gives a modernist twist to the celebratory panache of classic jazz. There is modal intensity, even a bit of expressionist bite, but so far the urban electric blues that launched the career of tonight’s co-celebrant, guitarist Eric Clapton, has been conspicuous by its absence.
This concert hardly redressed the balance, even though Clapton chose the set list. The trumpeter’s arrangements were heavy with prewar textures and New Orleans rhythms – a canny arrangement, an improvised flourish, the rhythm section breathing new life into established practices. Clapton still sounds slightly in awe of those who first inspired him, but his well-chosen phrases are delivered with authenticity and the jukebox licks, rhythmic strums and high-note wails blended surprisingly well with the Marsalis canon.
The night opened with a solo spot from the multi-instrumentalist blues virtuoso Taj Mahal. Suited, booted and topped by a bluesman’s hat, he sang of well-being, murder, love and heartbreak. There were picked guitar, foot-stomping riffs, and a final switch to barroom piano. And when he declaimed that a woman’s beauty “would make a strong man holler and a weak man lose his home”, you believed every word.
After a long ovation and a short speech, Marsalis and Clapton celebrated the blues with recreations (Louis Armstrong’s between-beat phrasing on “I’m Not Rough”) and in-style reinterpretations (W.C. Handy’s “Joe Turner’s Blues”, a hypnotic vocal chant with sparse rhythmic accompaniment). Clapton, himself a lead vocalist, stuck to his guitar, with tasteful fills and trademark lead.
The best moments juxtaposed the old and the new: discordant brass brought out the surreal menace of Howling Wolf’s “Forty Four”; the organised chaos of polyphonic bursts; solos that spanned decades – Marsalis and pianist Dan Nimmer stood out; and Clapton’s “Layla”, a last-minute addition that opened with a fanfare of rough-hewn brass. The finale revisited the New Orleans funerals of old and added Taj Mahal’s soul-stirring vocals. The opening dirge was agonisingly slow, the exultation uplifting enough to justify the prolonged ovation and sprightly encore.