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The Power of the Blues: Eric Clapton & Wynton Marsalis at Jazz at Lincoln Center

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Eric Clapton, Wynton Marsalis, Taj Mahal
Rose Hall
New York, NY
April 9, 2011

Let's get something out of the way here. Eric Clapton has nothing left to prove. That much is certain. The man many call "god" has accomplished enough throughout his long and varied career that he is now free to pursue any number of his "passion projects." And good on him for taking the time to play these special shows at Jazz at Lincoln Center along with Wynton Marsalis and Taj Mahal. To hear Marsalis tell it, it has been beyond difficult to manage both his and Clapton's busy schedules to arrange for this date, and kudos to both for being diligent.

That said, not every "passion project" turns out great. Often in the recent past, Clapton has been doing nothing more than going through the motions, even when playing with such current luminaries as Doyle Bramhall III and Derek Trucks. On this night, however, playing alongside Marsalis and a crack backing band consisting of members of the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra, all that was thrown out the window. Clapton just had fun.

Clapton suggested the setlist for the evening, but Marsalis came up with the arrangements. And while the songs were blues, the sound was New Orleans jazz. Clapton acquitted himself well in this setting, which he acknowledged was unfamiliar to him. Playing the role assigned to him as frontman of a jazz band, Clapton never seemed to be the show's focus, choosing to remain seated with the band even while playing his electric guitar. And he chose his spots well. A biting solo here, a tasty vocal there, and he showed that his range extends beyond the relatively narrow space of blues-rock.

Marsalis, on the other hand, was right at home. Charming and charismatic as ever, he seemed to be enjoying himself as much as anyone. He showed his chops both during his superbly constructed solos and while providing incendiary rhythm playing. During Howlin' Wolf's "Forty-Four," Marsalis played a rousing call-and-response with Clapton's vocal.

Of the backing band, trombonist Chris Crenshaw was given the most space. His solos stuck out as the trombone is not usually considered a frontline instrument, especially in the blues realm. But the instrument plays an important part in New Orleans music, and Crenshaw is a true virtuoso. Evoking guttural growls from the trombone, he brought the house down on multiple occasions.

Drummer Ali Jackson as well was a treat to witness. His timekeeping and subtle color provided the underpinning of music that often changed tempo at the drop of a dime, as on the set-closing New Orleans funeral dirge "Just A Closer Walk With Thee."

On the whole, this was a truly special evening. From the opening four-song solo set by blues and world music legend Taj Mahal to the deeply jazzy reading of "Layla" (the song was almost unrecognizable), there was a sense of history that was palpable throughout. This was, as Marsalis so elegantly stated, a celebration of the power of the blues.

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