An uptown venue and a jazz band providing musical support delivered arresting components, displaying the rich and varied repertoire of the blues. Carrie Smith defined the essence of the blues early on with a robust take on “Aunt Hagar’s Blues” by W.C. Handy; B.B. King raised the roof with his signature “The Thrill Is Gone”; and the sublimely eloquent Audra McDonald, accompanied by the growling trumpet of Wynton Marsalis, made a valid point with Duke Ellington’s exotic wordless “Creole Love Call”: The blues can have class.
Jazz at Lincoln Center moved to the Apollo Theater for this all-star gala, taking place in the congressionally decreed Year of the Blues. The event raised more than $1.17 million to benefit the hundreds of performances and educational programs produced by Jazz at Lincoln Center each year.
Marsalis and his superb associates — all key members of the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra — served as the evening’s boldly supportive backbone. From Ornette Coleman’s “Ramblin'” to a loping New Orleans funeral march, the septet distinctively defined the varied musical colors of the blues.
Eric Clapton, greeted enthusiastically by the capacity aud, performed the great Bessie Smith confessional “Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out” with the purity and directness we’ve come to expect from him. Clapton and King, who recorded an album together a couple of years ago, later jammed on the Count Basie-Joe Williams classic “Every Day (I Have the Blues),” a fine example of two guitarists bonding over the blues.
Ray Charles offered a straightforward take on “I’m Gonna Move to the Outskirts of Town,” affirming his gift for investing heart and soul into his perfs. Willie Nelson played “Milk Cow Blues” with laid-back, front-porch pleasure.
Saxman Lou Donaldson put a little jazz into the equation, offering a fleeting yet biting turn on Charlie Parker’s standard “Now’s the Time.”
Actor Laurence Fishburne was an elegant host, offering an informative narrative, dotted with just enough historical data to link the evening’s songs with the impressive roster of performers.