United by dalliances with purism as young men and an abiding love of classic blues and jazz, Eric Clapton and Wynton Marsalis are a more comfortable fit than it may initially seem. Both musicians are synthesists, not innovators, stitching together elements from their idols in an attempt to preserve the past while bringing it into the present, so their sensibilities are aligned and, in 2011, they’re amenable to a partnership that explores their common ground. So, Clapton and Marsalis held a series of concerts at New York City’s Jazz at Lincoln Center in April of 2011, the guitarist selecting the songs (apart from “Layla,” performed upon the request of bassist Carlos Henriquez), the trumpeter picking the band and working up the arrangements, using King Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band as his template yet finding room for piano and, of course, guitar. Clapton’s choice of songs leans heavily toward the '20s -- so much so that the dip into postwar electric blues via Howlin’ Wolf’s “Forty Four” feels a bit of a shock -- and the arrangements are faithful to classic New Orleans jazz yet loose, never quite hidebound to tradition and finding plenty of space for every one of the players to roam; Clapton and Marsalis surely solo plenty, but so do trombonist Chris Crenshaw, clarinetist Victor Goines, and pianist Dan Nimmer. There’s not much ego on display -- even the inclusion of “Layla” doesn’t feel forced, thanks to Marsalis’ inventive New Orleans funeral arrangement of this overly familiar tune -- but the joy is palpable and the chemistry natural. Compared to Wynton’s duet albums with Willie Nelson, this is both more traditional and riskier, and compared to Clapton’s latter-day duets with B.B. King and J.J. Cale, this finds the guitarist none too deferential. These are consummate musicians united by playing music they love, and their passion resonates so strongly it’s hard not to enjoy Clapton and Marsalis playing the blues.
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AllMusic Review by Stephen Thomas Erlewine