Blue notes

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 30 October, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 30 October, 2011, 12:00am


Wynton Marsalis and Eric Clapton make an unlikely partnership.

The trumpet player was widely known for years for the withering contempt with which he regarded jazz's dalliances with rock. He was even unwise enough to publicly disparage Miles Davis' work in that area - with the result that when he showed up unannounced for a guest appearance at one of Davis' shows, the Prince of Darkness kicked him off the stage.

Recent years, however, have seen Marsalis turn up in contexts his younger self would not have countenanced. In 2007 he played a couple of jump blues sets in New York with Willie Nelson as part of the ongoing Jazz at the Lincoln Centre programme, of which he is artistic director. He was also a star sideman on Clapton's last studio album, and earlier this year the two teamed up for another Lincoln Centre gig.

The results of their collaboration, recorded and filmed over three nights, have now been released as Wynton Marsalis and Eric Clapton Play the Blues, on the Reprise Jazz label as a CD only or CD plus DVD package.

The programme of blues standards has been given a New Orleans treatment, as has the one Clapton original, Layla - chosen, according to Marsalis, not by Clapton but by bassist Carlos Henriquez - which has been rearranged in the style of a Crescent City funeral march.

Clapton selected all the others and as Marsalis remarks, 'he chose a diversity of songs from different regions with diverse and specific functions, grooves, and meanings. The set list alone is a testament to the sophistication of his taste.'

These range from W.C. Handy's New Orleans staple Careless Love to Howlin' Wolf's roaring Chicago blues standard Forty-Four, aligned here with the kind of blues Louis Armstrong - also cited in Marsalis' liner notes - took around the world.

A surprising admission from Marsalis was that Clapton had been tutoring him on the blues. 'Though raised in American music, I have learned much about various blues styles from the comprehensive and expertly curated playlist Eric ... sends after a conversation. And, for me, it's important to acknowledge at all times the supremacy of knowledge,' he says.

This is not Clapton's first foray into jazz, but previous excursions have mostly been more along the lines of soul jazz or fusion.

As Jack Bruce once observed, 'Cream was really a jazz band, only we didn't tell Eric'.

The DVD footage reveals the guitarist, for all his years of experience in the blues, daunted at playing with Marsalis' accomplished jazz band, which was augmented by Clapton's regular pianist Chris Stainton, and special guest on two tracks, support artist Taj Mahal.

'It takes great courage to come to New York and learn 12 new arrangements in three days, front a band that you've never played with in a form of music you don't normally play, play three concerts, and sing almost all of the material,' Marsalis says.

'Eric did this flawlessly, and after all of that he told me, 'I'd rather play the rhythm parts than play any solos'. That's why I love and respect him.'

Take Three

Three noteworthy albums featuring Wynton Marsalis collaborating with other artists.

Quartet (1982, Columbia): his falling out with Miles Davis still in the future, Marsalis joins the 1960s classic Davis quintet sidemen Herbie Hancock, Ron Carter and Tony Williams for a strong Hancock led set of standards, including several from the quintet's repertoire.

In Full Swing (2003, Sony): fiddle player Mark O'Connor pays tribute to Stephane Grappelli with his String Trio, vocalist Jane Monheit and Marsalis, who blows the blues on Tiger Rag, Honeysuckle Rose and As Time Goes By, adding potent New Orleans trumpet to O'Connor's Hot Club-style string band gypsy jazz.

Two Men With the Blues (2008, Blue Note): Willie Nelson is an icon of country music rather than jazz or the blues, but has absorbed much from both those traditions and they are clearly present in his singing, songwriting and guitar playing. Here, he and Marsalis find common ground on an enjoyable and accessible set.