Arguments still rage about which role Eric Clapton plays best — the blues journeyman, the rock guitar god, the unplugged popster, or the slick, adult-contemporary balladeer. More than ever, Clapton shuns stereotyping. This is his most versatile record in years, incorporating everything he does with no worries about how it all fits.
“I just let it happen,’’ he says of the album, which he coproduced with his touring guitarist Doyle Bramhall II. It represents a welcome, more organic change from the sticky-sweet productions of Simon Climie for most of the past decade. The blues tracks are a connoisseur’s delight — from the swampy, John Lee Hooker-meets-Fat Possum feel of Lil’ Son Jackson’s “Travelin’ Alone’’ and the Chicago crunch of Little Walter’s “Can’t Hold Out Much Longer,’’ to the more urgent slam of the Clapton/Bramhall original “Run Back to Your Side,’’ with Derek Trucks excelling on slide guitar.
Clapton also brings back iconic groove buddy J.J. Cale (they did the duet album “The Road to Escondido’’ in 2006) for Cale’s haunting “River Runs Deep’’ and the wishful “Everything Will Be Alright.’’ But Clapton isn’t done. He visits New Orleans for the swinging “My Very Good Friend the Milkman’’ (with boulevard-strutting solos by trumpeter Wynton Marsalis) and the upbeat “When Somebody Thinks You’re Wonderful’’ with Marsalis again shining. Clapton completes the clinic by adding two Great American Songbook tunes — Hoagy Carmichael’s loping “Rockin’ Chair’’ and Irving Berlin’s endlessly romantic “How Deep Is the Ocean.’’ The music throughout is sequenced brilliantly, with a cohesion that almost defies logic. (Out now)
ESSENTIAL “Run Back to Your Side’’