It was a blues summit years in the making.
When trumpeter Wynton Marsalis first approached guitar legend Eric Clapton about joining forces to raise money for Jazz at Lincoln Center, he said Clapton “showed up with a song list of 2,000 numbers.”
The fruits of that cross-generational, cross-cultural collaboration were on display last night before a packed house at the center’s Frederick P. Rose Hall.
The two virtuosos swung through a blues compendium that ranged from Louis Armstrong’s “I’m Not Rough” to W.C. Handy’s “Careless Love.” They also played gospel music (“Just a Closer Walk With Thee”) and even an unplugged “Layla” unlike any I’ve ever heard.
The music was marked by a seriousness of purpose and lack of ego that allowed the pair to disappear into a superb ensemble drawn from the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra. Even when they let loose, it was with considerable restraint and lack of flash, though Clapton briefly caught fire on Howlin’ Wolf’s “Forty Four.”
A standout in the band was Victor Goines, a soulful New Orleans clarinetist whose joyful, intricate reed work recalled the ebullient Pete Fountain. Marcus Printup was a bold challenge to the boss on trumpet and trombonist Chris Crenshaw slid in and out of the action with uncommon finesse.
For the rousing finale and encore they were joined by gravel-voiced blues polymath Taj Mahal, who had opened the concert with three songs that showed off his still-formidable guitar and piano playing skills, including his signature cover of the classic “Stagger Lee.”
The concert will be repeated tonight. Information: +1-212-258-9800; http://www.jazzatlincolncenter.org. Rating: ****
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(Jeremy Gerard is an editor and critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)