Some things are more important than politics. Great music is one of them. Music, the "universal language," can ennoble an entire civilization and can even serve as a tool of diplomacy. It also can just flat-out fill a soul with joy. A new CD out this year, to which I just cannot stop listening, might be the most stunning collaboration, the most inspired melding of idioms, that you the listener may hear in decades. It's just that good.
Ladies and gentlemen, please introduce yourself, quickly, to Wynton Marsalis and Eric Clapton Play the Blues.
The title is actually a bit misleading. Most of the tunes are played far more like traditional New Orleans jazz than like blues. In his CD notes, Marsalis explains: "We decided to use the instrumentation of King Oliver's Creole Jazz Band plus two (electric guitar and piano), because they transformed the world of music with a set of 1923 recordings and, with performances like 'Dipper Mouth Blues,' forever established the blues as a centerpiece of jazz."
He's right about Oliver's band. Oliver, who served as the primary mentor for one Louis Armstrong, is one of the musicians whose greatness and influence so far outflanks his familiarity to today's American public as to be nearly a tragedy. His band's recordings, featuring Oliver and a young Armstrong with complementary cornets along with several other musicians who may make trad-jazz fans' eyes light up, were perhaps the seminal LPs in bringing the new music of jazz to an eager public. (Satchmo Armstrong would take four of those artists -- Johnny Dodds, Baby Dodds, Johnny St. Cyr, and his new wife Lil Hardin Armstrong -- into the studio sessions for his Hot Five and Hot Seven groups that produced some of the most revered recordings in American music history.)
Anyway, what was unique about traditional New Orleans jazz was that it featured collective improvisation around a central melody with syncopated rhythms underlying and driving the tunes. Combining in some senses the blues, ragtime, and the music of brass marching bands, it forever transformed the world of music. R&B, rock-n-roll, and of course later forms of jazz all owe their provenance to the trad jazz widely popularized in the 1920s.
Yet the sad reality is that traditional jazz, even in New Orleans, has seemed a dying art. Its youngest prominent practitioners, most notably Dr. Michael White, are now well into their 50s. Younger groups such as the Rebirth Brass Band or solo artists such as Nicholas Payton, familiar to (and deservedly popular with) a nation of Jazz and Heritage Festival attendees, play a music that contains only vestiges of the traditional style.
Wynton Marsalis, of course, virtuoso that he is, keeps any number of jazz sub-genres alive at Lincoln Center in New York, but even he is now in his 50s and seems to have few peers, or even imitators, among younger musicians.
Enter Eric Clapton, rock-n-roller extraordinaire. Sure, his rock often has been tinged with the blues -- but traditional jazz? Really?… Well, on this new album, his love for and facility with the old style is a revelation. What he and Marsalis and their band have produced has the potential to re-ignite a passion for the traditional idiom in a new generation of listeners (and perhaps of musicians) for whom Clapton has somehow remained uniquely "current" in way that few of his musical contemporaries (he's now 66) have done.
First, credit where due: It's worth listing all the musicians. In addition to Marsalis on vocals and trumpet and Clapton on vocals and guitar, they are: Victor Goines, clarinet; Marcus Printup, trumpet; Chris Crenshaw, trombone and vocals; Don Vappie, banjo; Chris Stainton, keyboards; Dan Nimmer, piano; Carlos Henriquez, bass; Ali Jackson, drums; and special appearances on vocals and banjo by Taj Mahal.
"We agreed to let the music show how the blues continues to speak with clarity and immediacy across all lines of segregation," Marsalis wrote. "We combined the sound of an early blues jump-band with the sound of New Orleans jazz to accommodate the integration of guitar/trumpet lead and to give us the latitude to play different grooves from the Delta to the Caribbean and beyond. New Orleans is a mythic birthplace of jazz, the blues, gospel, rhythm & blues, and rock-n'roll. It is the perfect place to find our common heritage."
And boy oh boy, did they ever! What these terrific musicians have put together is a CD for the ages. A trad-jazz purist like I am will be ecstatic over it, because it adheres to the Oliver-Armstrong style in many places with not just a stale and static fealty, but with a buoyant liveliness as if the entire musical style is as new and fresh as it was in 1923. Yet it should also appeal to anybody with an appreciation of good music of almost any sort. Unlike some trad-jazz standards, these songs, played as Marsalis and Clapton do them, are eminently accessible, highly entertaining, infectiously listenable. An old standard called "Ice Cream" ("I scream, you scream, everybody wants ice scream….") is a gem. "The Last Time" is a jilted lover's ironic but remarkably good-humored lament. "Just a Closer Walk with Thee" has never sounded so soulful. On "Corrine, Corrina," Taj Mahal joins in with vocals to die for.
And, amazingly, Clapton and the band pull off Clapton's signature "Layla" as if it were a blues standard with occasional jazz riffs, subtly played, in the background. (Marsalis wrote that bassist Carlos Henriquez, not Clapton, insisted that it be part of the set -- and describes it as being "arranged as a Crescent City dirge/swing.") How they manage to cross genres like that, so effectively, is a thing of wonder. There's also an amazingly fun rendition of the old jazz/early rock-n-roll standard "Stagger Lee."
It's hard to describe just how good this whole recording is. It's hard to believe it. My friend and fellow conservative columnist Deroy Murdock, who introduced me to this the CD in the first place, is usually more attuned to rock and soul and more modern jazz than to traditional jazz -- but he says this about it: "Clapton's riffs and singing are as stellar as ever, even in this most unexpected of formats. This great Briton sounds as if he were strumming his guitar while throwing Mardi Gras beads at adoring crowds in the Rex Parade. Marsalis is scary talented, and Clapton clearly can do anything he wants, at least musically."
Fly, fly, fly to the nearest CD outlet or computer screen to buy Marsalis and Clapton Play the Blues. It's the best recording, or any style of music, of this young century. Period.
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