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Blowin' The Blues Away Concert Details

Published // 05.Jun.03

They Got the Ol' TV Documentary Blues - The New York Times / Kelefa Sanneh

How do you pay tribute to the blues? How do you capture the music's restless spirit, its bitter wit, its elegiac grace, its raunchy energy?

The organizers of "Blowin' the Blues Away: A Gala Evening Celebrating the Blues and Jazz" decided to trust the music. On Monday night the Apollo Theater held a concert that took its shape from the most vibrant expression of the blues today: the television documentary.

The concert, a benefit for Jazz at Lincoln Center, succeeded, thanks in large part to the star performer, Laurence Fishburne, whose smooth, rich voice evoked the great voice-over narrators of old. If you sat back in your seat and closed your eyes, it was easy to feel as if you'd been transported . . . to your own sofa, in front of the television set.

The soundtrack was supplied by the Wynton Marsalis Septet, which nimbly brought to life blues and blues-inflected pieces from throughout the century. The ensemble sounded especially impressive during a run through Ornette Coleman's jagged, asymmetrical "Ramblin'," bending the notes a little further to emphasize the blues connection. In case anyone had doubts, Mr. Fishburne stepped up to vouch for Mr. Coleman's blues credentials: "Even his most demanding compositions are anchored in the blues."

There was a full slate of guest stars, too, many who have reached that stage of eminence when they don't play concerts anymore — just benefits and tributes.

Out came Eric Clapton, strapping on an acoustic guitar for a charming, spindly version of Louis Armstrong's "I'm Not Rough," and no one laughed when he moaned, "It takes a brown-skinned woman to satisfy my mind." (When Mr. Clapton was done, Mr. Fishburne assured the audience that "the blues, they belong to everyone.")

Out came B. B King, who did more mugging than playing, and who didn't seem totally comfortable collaborating with Mr. Marsalis's jazz band; he seemed a bit more comfortable when Mr. Marsalis brought out Mr. Clapton for the inevitable duet.

Out came Ray Charles, who contributed the night's most bizarre solo, bending notes on a keyboard to imitate a guitar; Mr. Marsalis could only chuckle and shake his head.

And out came Willie Nelson, clutching his battered guitar, mumbling his way through a marvelously casual version of "Night Life."

Each guest performer contributed only a song or two or three, with Mr. Fishburne invariably supplying introductions and explanations. In deference, perhaps, to the old tradition of public television, there were no commercials, although halfway through, Mr. Fishburne preached a blustery "blues sermon" (written by Stanley Crouch) that might have been the perfect time for a bathroom break.

The overall effect was entertaining but also dizzying; with so many performers squeezed into a little over an hour, the concert often felt like one long montage.

Still, there were a few moments that would have been worth rewinding. When Audra McDonald came out to sing Duke Ellington's stately "Creole Love Call," Mr. Marsalis upstaged her with a wild trumpet solo that ended with the instrumental equivalent of laughter.

And then there was the singer Carrie Smith, whose sly, purring voice was drenched with vibrato. While many of the other documentarians emphasized blues history, she delivered the delicious lyrics as if she were more interested in settling a score. "When you get good loving, never go and spread the news," she sang, with the tassels on her red dress swaying in time to the beat. And then the punchline: "Some old gal will come along,/ leave you with them empty-bed blues."

 

Blowin' the Blues - Reuters

All 14 hours of the upcoming PBS miniseries "The Blues" may not do half as good a job of illustrating the history of the musical form as this stunning benefit concert at the historic Apollo Theater for Jazz at Lincoln Center.

Featuring a lineup of performers who have done much to define popular music in the past half-century -- including Ray Charles, Eric Clapton, B.B. King and Willie Nelson -- "Blowin' the Blues Away" was that rare black-tie musical evening in which every aspect came together beautifully.

Conceived and put together by Wynton Marsalis, hosted by Laurence Fishburne in his most dramatic "Matrix" mode and featuring an articulate and informative script by noted author Geoffrey Ward, the concise, 90-minute show (patrons, who had paid $500 and up for their tickets, attended a post-performance dinner) featured the performers, backed by the ever-versatile Marsalis septet, performing vintage blues and jazz classics.

Thus, legendary numbers by the likes of Jelly Roll Morton, W.C. Handy, Bessie Smith, Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington, as well as Charlie Parker, Ornette Coleman and Bob Wills, were expertly delivered by the awesome lineup.

Clapton, playing acoustic guitar, paid homage to his original inspirations with heartfelt renditions of "I'm Not Rough" (playing the Lonnie Johnson part from the original Louis Armstrong and the Hot Fives recording) and "Nobody Knows You When You're Down and Out."

Nelson did a version of "Night Life" featuring a nicely jazzed-up arrangement showcasing Marsalis' septet, and Wills' "Milk Cow Blues," a standout from Nelson's recent blues-oriented release.

King sang "The Thrill Is Gone," somehow managing to make the ever-familiar anthem seem utterly fresh, and, to the thrill of the crowd, duetted with Clapton on "Ev'ry Day (I Have the Blues)."

Finally, Charles somehow managed to magically make his keyboard sound like an electric guitar during his pair of numbers.

It wasn't just about the superstars. Blues singer Carrie Smith wowed the house with "Empty Bed Blues" (performed on the same stage by Bessie Smith 70 years earlier), highlighted by her witty musical dialogue with Ron Westray's muted trombone.

Saxophonist Lou Donaldson channeled the spirit of the legendary Parker in "Now's the Time," garnering applause with his amazingly fluid solos, while Audra McDonald provided gorgeously sultry wordless vocals to Ellington's "Creole Love Call," with Marsalis' trumpet hilariously conveyeing sexual frenzy.

The atmosphere of this memorable evening was greatly enhanced by its setting at the historic Apollo Theater, though it was hard not to notice the irony that this program of music written almost entirely by black Americans was being performed for a largely white audience.

 

Guitars Gently Sweep - New York Post / Dan Aquilante

You'd think guitar icons B.B. King and Eric Clapton would riff together all the time, but it's as rare as a blue moon. At the Apollo Theater Monday for "Blowin' Away the Blues," an all-star concert that also featured Ray Charles and Willie Nelson, the planets aligned and King and Clapton jammed.

Sizing up the English six-string slinger, the rubber-faced King joked, "Just because you're younger, better-looking and play better, you think you can just sit down and play?" Clapton, naturally shy, took his shot: "Aw, B.B., you're not that much older than me."With the gauntlet thrown down, the two axmen commenced to chop a chord of blues.

King is incomparable for his passionate, stinging electric style, while Clapton is a technical genius who has speed, accuracy and a huge musical vocabulary. Alone, each is terrific; together, they are magnificent. That wasn't lost on Wynton Marsalis and his jazz septet, who backed King and Clapton, or the audience, for that matter. When they played "Every Day I Have the Blues," there was no doubt this was a showdown. So who won? The audience that was lucky enough to witness this historic matchup.

This was an unusual blues concert because it examined the orchestral blues of founding fathers W.C. Handy, Jelly Roll Morton and Duke Ellington. Unlike the raw delta variety or the more modern Chicago styles of blues, this was the music that eventually evolved into jazz. Bop alto sax man Lou Donaldson demonstrated that while conjuring the ghost of Charlie Parker.

Nelson might seem a weird choice for a blues concert, but he connected the dots between the blues and country. Willie's reedy tenor was bold, offering fine counterpoint to his extremely gentle six-string attack. More than any other artist on the bill, Nelson had rapport with the audience and Marsalis' band.

Only Ray Charles came close to that kind of intimacy with the house. In the finale slot, he offered a pair of very old-fashioned blues numbers that harkened back to Professor Longhair. During the piano rolls of "Hang Around Blues," house pianist Richard Johnson (who was excellent throughout the night), like an eager kid at school, strained to watch Charles' ancient fingers fly across the keyboard.

Host Laurence Fishburne, who offered a succinct, informative narration, talked about the death of the blues. With events like this, it's going to be a long time before the blues are carted to the marble orchard.