Eric Clapton’s reflexive humility is a wonder to behold. After seamlessly working his guitar into classics from Louis Armstrong’s “I’m Not Rough” to W.C. Handy’s “Joe Turner’s Blues,” he paused to thank his bandmates, led by Jazz at Lincoln Center a.d. and trumpet virtuoso Wynton Marsalis, for allowing him to join the A-list ensemble “and try to make my little jingly stuff work.” He hadn’t wanted to include the next number, Clapton cautioned, but bass player Carlos Henriquez talked him into it. The aud owes Henriquez a debt: in perfect, disjunct unison, the band played an astonishing no-lead-instrument version of “Layla.”
Given the amount of time Clapton has spent pondering, practicing and poring over the rules and meter of the blues, it’s difficult to imagine a happier setting for the legendary singer-songwriter. Seated on the edge of the stage with what were almost certainly unnecessary music stands in front of them, Clapton and Marsalis seemed mutually starstruck, as though neither could believe he was getting to show off for the other. “Whenever I met the great blues people I would always say, ‘I love the way you play – I’m just doing this until I can get a job in a jazz band,’ ” Clapton confessed during the performance.
Perhaps the two-hour program’s greatest accomplishment was that none of the other instruments, from Victor Goines’ aching clarinet to Ali Jackson’s wild drums, ever vanished behind either headliner. This is particularly impressive given that most versions of these songs aren’t agreeable to a wailing electric guitar; somehow, Clapton’s bandmates have generously created a space for him to improvise, solo and strum along to jazz standards from the 20’s.
The set is culled by Marsalis and company from – no kidding – a 2,000-song-strong list of suggestions from Clapton, and includes several (but not all) of the thirteen numbers printed on the program. Of the set at the perf reviewed, ragtimey opener “Ice Cream” and Kansas Joe/Memphis Minnie standard “Joliet Bound” stood out, but it’s hard to pick a weak number from this mix.
Blessedly, tech aspects are all aces – the mix is crystal clear and seamlessly transitions from the lovely acoustic openers performed by Taj Mahal (who joins the band with pebbly vocals on a hair-raising jazz funeral rendition of “Just a Closer Walk With Thee”) to the full 10-piece set.