The tradition of All-Star jazz groups goes all the way back to the Jazz at the Philharmonic tours produced in the 40s and 50s by impresario Norman Granz, who would bring together great players who hadn’t necessarily played together before in order to create a special experience for both the audience and the musicians. A typical Jazz at the Philharmonic show might feature Ella Fitzgerald, Oscar Peterson, Lester Young, Gene Krupa, Barney Kessel, Ray Brown and Flip Phillips. You get the idea. You can hear many of these remarkable shows on records released on Granz’s Pablo or Verve labels.
Since 2001, The Jazz Cruise has been presenting its very own “All-Star” programming in a series of nearly a dozen special performances throughout the weeklong sailing. More than 30 of the very best players in jazz perform with each other in various configurations on multiple stages, as well as supporting some of our headliners in special shows such as the Opening Night Welcome Show, the Big Band Dance Party, and the Hall of Fame Show.
A typical All-Star set includes a horn player or two, a rhythm section (piano, bass, drums), and either a vocalist, guitarist or another instrument. One member of the group is designated as the leader and he or she generally selects the tunes or recommends direction for the set. What is agreed upon in advance is often reworked if a special vibe or spirit emerges. The result is jazz at both its purest and its finest. The music from their bandstand is something appreciated not only by the audience who gets to hear a new band in every set, but also by the musicians who share a common musical vocabulary.
Shelly Berg, The Jazz Cruise’s Music Director, says that he chooses the musicians for the All-Stars based on their talent, of course, but also upon their versatility, ability to perform a vast array of tunes and their bandstand communication skills. “All of the All-Stars are great virtuosos, and they are selected for their love of and rapport with the audience, and with their fellow musicians,” explains Shelly. “The All-Stars are not wallflowers — they are great musicians who love to perform.” Shelly and John Clayton, The Jazz Cruise’s Big Band Director, work together to include as many musicians who are equally comfortable in both the All-Star and Big Band settings.
“Putting the All-Star sets together is a dream job. It is like a sports GM assembling a dream team, and I get to do 12 of them every year,” says Shelly. “I pass the leader opportunities around, so as many stars as possible can put their stamp on a set. When I put the groups together, I think about combinations that obviously fit together and also about bringing onstage players who might never have shared a bandstand. In the first case, the history of gigs between the players creates a template for the music to follow, while in the latter circumstance there is an anticipation of something undiscovered.”
As drummer and frequent All-Star Lewis Nash points out in the video above, the mix-and-match format enables him to connect on a spontaneous level with his peers and heroes.
The 2022 All-Stars include both longtime favorites, such as Wycliffe Gordon, Randy Brecker, Terell Stafford, Ken Peplowski, Nicki Parrott, Ada Rovatti, James Morrison, Niki Haris, Emmet Cohen and the aforementioned Mr. Nash, as well as several new and noteworthy additions like Bria Skonberg, Billy Childs, Patrick Bartley, Benny Green, Rodney Whitaker, Javier Nero and Eric Harland.
The All-Stars’ contributions comprise another reason why The Jazz Cruise truly lives up to its moniker as The Greatest Jazz Festival at Sea.