Monday, January 16, 2023

The Jazz Cruise is back with vigor and surprises

After two years of pandemic-prompted cancellations, The Jazz Cruise picked up right where it left off in January 2020. This year's January 6-13 sailing from Fort Lauderdale, Florida to the Caribbean was loaded with talent, peerless playing and a few splendid surprises.

How to describe it in a nutshell? The finest jazz performed in varied combinations between early afternoon and 1 a.m. On several days, the music began before noon. And that doesn't count  lectures, interviews, and daily passenger jam sessions that stretched from 9:30 a.m.  to 2:30 p.m.

More than 100 musicians were aboard, with the headliners including singer Dee Dee Bridgewater, pianist Monty Alexander and trumpeter Wynton Marsalis. The Jazz at Lincoln Center artistic director came aboard with his octet during the Celebrity Millennium's (8 a.m. to 11 p.m.) extended stop in Cozumel, Mexico.

Each band aboard the cruise performed three times during the course of the week, so you could catch someone later if you had a conflict with another show in one of the ship's four performance venues. Players were also mixed-and-matched in eight different top-notch All-Stars concerts. Deck Four's Rendezvous Lounge specialized in piano trio and solo piano shows that had an up close, in-your-living-room atmosphere.

Sutton, Holmes
Here is a chronological rundown of some of my personal favorites from the week's many offerings:

  • Singer Tierney Sutton's opening night Sky Lounge performance with her longstanding band included the first of the cruise's "you had to be there" moments. Singer Clint Holmes jumped on stage for the finale, joining Sutton in a clever scatting duet on Bob Dorough's "Devil May Care."
  • Trombonist Wycliffe Gordon's Gospel Hour is a treat each time out, this one bringing the jazz church to a Saturday morning, because it was a day at sea unfettered by a port-of-call. Gordon opened with a duet with pianist Lafayette Harris Jr. on Thomas A. Dorsey's "Precious Lord" before bringing out band mates Terell Stafford, Rickey Woodard, Javier Nero, Matthew Parrish and Eric Harland. Singer Niki Haris added rousing gospel vocals on "Precious Memories" and "This Little Light of Mine." Gordon, shifting between horns and vocals, shared an original pandemic-inspired tune, "Blues 2020."

Godwin Louis, Etienne Charles

  • Trinidad-born Etienne Charles treated the audience to bop and non-bop material flavored with the rhythms and musical spices of the Caribbean with his Creole Soul band. This younger band included alto saxophonist Godwin Louis, Cuban pianist Axel Tosca, guitarist Alex Wintz, bassist Barry Stephenson and drummer Savannah Harris. With Charles shifting between trumpet and congas, they put fresh stamps on Trinidad boogie-woogie pianist Winifred Atwell's "Coronation Rag," Henri Salvador's "Dans Mon Ile," which Antonio Carlos Jobim said influenced him in developing the bossa nova, some Hazel Scott, Bob Marley's "Turn Your Lights Down Low," and a vibrant calypso, among others.

Sing, Sing, Sing

  • Sing, Sing, Sing was a stand, stand, standout. Musical director and pianist Shelly Berg performed with nine of the singers on the cruise. Each talked about their primary influence in deciding on jazz careers, then shared a tune of their choosing that underscored their individual styles. This 90-minute gem was a mutual admiration society event with John Pizzarelli, Bridgewater, Sutton, Holmes, Haris, Kurt Elling, Ann Hampton Callaway, Bria Skonberg and rising star Samara Joy. whose sheer vocal power and artistry had her peers' jaws dropping. Callaway's segment had the audience - and all of the other singers - in stitches, as she improvised lyrics that spoke to each of their traits and background stories that they shared minutes before. It was clever - and masterfully done. Here's a link to the YouTube clip.

  • Gordon, Marsalis
    New Orleans jazz flavors were prominent throughout the Wynton Marsalis Octet concert. They explored "No Surrender" from the leader's Integrity Suite, and "Deeper Than Dreams" and "Ballot Box Bounce" from the The Democracy Suite. Former sideman Wycliffe Gordon joined the festivities for "Buddy Bolden's Blues" and "Basin Street Blues." Alto saxophonist Wes Anderson, another Marsalis band alum, who was aboard the cruise as a passenger, joined the band on "Moscow Blues."

Samara Joy

  • Samara Joy, who turned 23 in November, only found her way to jazz at age 17, but has absorbed much from studying the masters - and transforming it into a personal style. While Sarah Vaughan is the primary influence, she also shared material from Carmen McRae, Abbey Lincoln and Betty Carter in her performance with pianist Luther Allison, bassist Peter Washington and drummer Kenny Washington. She also performed Barry Harris’ composition "Now and Then," to which she added original lyrics.

Bridgewater, McBride, Green

  • Bassist Christian McBride teamed with two old friends and band mates, pianist Benny Green and drummer Greg Hutchinson, to celebrate the impact and musical legacy of bass great Ray Brown by performing material from his repertoire. All three had worked in Brown's bands, McBride in SuperBass, a project that also included The Jazz Cruise's big band director, John Clayton.The high-level performance finished with a fourth former Brown collaborator. Dee Dee Bridgewater joined the trio for "I'm Beginning to See the Light" and "Here's That Rainy Day." Misty eyes and goosebumps prevailed - on stage and in the audience.

Wintz, Hart,Sewell

  • John Hart teamed with Wintz and Marvin Sewell for a Guitar Summit, in which each of the players chose tunes and then shifted between melody, harmony and rhythm responsibilities. With no other musicians on stage, it was intimate and riveting.
  • Keyboard Capers, produced by Emmet Cohen, featured 14 of the cruise's 18 pianists in a 90-minute showcase. (Ted Rosenthal, Billy Childs, Christian Sands, Benny Green, Renee Rosnes, Christian Tamburr, Luther Allison, Emmet Cohen, Christian Jacob, Kenny Banks Jr., Axel Tosca, Tamir Hendelman, Sullivan Fortner, Bill Charlap.) Each performed a solo piano piece in his or her own style, then handed off to the next player. All were riveting.   
For example,
Trading off, Keyboard Capers
 Sands shared an instant improvisation inspired by his trip to the beach in Nassau, Bahamas that morning.
Tosca played the Cuban son-pregón "El Manisero, known in English as "The Peanut Vendor." Tamburr added a twist by playing "I Remember You" on vibes. This lively session closed with a four-six- and even eight-hands romp through Charlie Parker's "Billie's Bounce" as the players took turns at the shared piano.

It felt like a Day 7 highlight, even though there were nine more sets scheduled that afternoon and night, including Monty Alexander's third trio show. Much like Benny Golson did a few years ago, he spent time between songs reminiscing about his influences and inspirations.

The Jazz Cruise began in 2001. Because of the pandemic lull, this was its 21st sailing. Founder Anita Berry took Hank O'Neal's old Floating Jazz Festival concept of the 1980s and '90s, which had heavy concentrations of jazz on regular sailings of the SS Norway and a few other ships, and upped the game. She chartered an entire ship for an all-jazz cruise. Her son, Michael Lazaroff, has continued the tradition.

The Jazz Cruise was followed by this week's Blue Note at Sea. The Jazz Cruises LLC series continues for the next two weeks with sailings of The Smooth Jazz Cruise.

Wycliffe Gordon's Gospel Hour with Niki Haris

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