As forced nuptials go, the union between Wynton Marsalis and Eric Clapton on their new live album is a joyful one. Just don’t expect a marriage of equals, since the celebrated jazzman definitely gets the upper hand on Slowhand.
The titular blues in their collaboration, “Play the Blues: Live From Lincoln Center,” are primarily the jubilant New Orleans variety, not the Chicago-via-London brand. Some of the latter 12-bar style sneaks in, if only because Clapton purportedly picked all the tunes. But it’s Marsalis’s arrangements and army of horns, so it feels very much like his show, with EC as featured vocalist and — once the trumpeters and trombonists have all had their turn — soloist.
Some of the reviews that came out after the duo’s three-night stand at the New York jazz hall in April rued Clapton’s secondary role in the proceedings. And it is kind of a shame that he takes such a subservient guest role, when a true meeting of minds might have produced more provocative results. But this is officially what is known as Looking a Gift Horse in the Mouth when there’s this much explosive talent on stage and on tape. (That would include HD videotape, since a deluxe CD/DVD edition is available for a few dollars extra.)
Be forewarned, if such things worry you, that there’s only one Clapton original among the 10 selections: “Layla,” which he announces was added to the set only at the insistence of Marsalis’s bass player. Origins aside, it’s nice to hear Marsalis’s ensemble set loose for nine melancholy minutes on something lower-key and minor-key, given the dictatorially celebrative mood of just about every other choice. And it’s about time Patti Harrison’s legendary sexual allure was celebrated by a sensual clarinet as well as guitar, isn’t it?
Pre-rock-era highlights include the opening “Ice Cream,” in which a frog-throated Clapton sounds like he really could scream for the title treat; “Joliet Bound,” which ends with Marsalis’s horn players approximating a coming train; and the 12-minute-plus “Just a Closer Walk With Thee,” which starts at a funeral crawl and eventually explodes into double-time (or is it triple?), with Clapton getting in some of his best jump-blues licks.
Taj Mahal (who opened the Lincoln Center shows) steps in as lead vocalist on the final two of the 10 tracks, “Closer Walk” and the equally epic “Corrine, Corrina.” If you're concerned about Mahal usurping Clapton at the climax, after the co-headliner has already played something of a guest role, two crucial words apply, again: Gift. Horse.