THE JAZZ CRUISE By Thomas Conrad
First published in the March 2018 issue of The New York City Jazz Record (www.nycjazzrecord.com)
Jazz cruises are the last stage in the progression of jazz addiction, after compulsive record collecting, club and concert attendance and jazz festivals. Jazz cruises are for the hardcore.
Entertainment Cruise Productions (ECP) has been operating jazz trips for 17 years. From Feb. 3rd-10th, “The Jazz Cruise” sailed from Fort Lauderdale, Florida to New Orleans, Louisiana to Cozumel, Mexico and back to Fort Lauderdale. ECP advertises it as “the first and only full ship charter in the world dedicated to ‘straightahead’ jazz.” Nowadays most major jazz festivals on dry land dilute their programs with pop. But on the sold-out Celebrity Summit, 2,000 passengers were living the straightahead dream: no fusion; no rock ’n’ roll.
There were over 100 musicians on board and nine spaces for music, including a luxurious 1,000-seat theater and a dining room turned into Birdland. If you had the juice, you could hit all or most of seven concerts in a day and still have time to eat too much, swim laps in the ship’s salt-water pool and ride a stationary bike in the fitness center next to trombonist Robin Eubanks.
The whole point of this cruise was the breadth and depth of talent on offer. There were established working bands: Marcus Miller, The Cookers, Kurt Elling, Brecker Brothers Reunion Band, Joey De Francesco, Trio Da Paz, Roberta Gambarini, Houston Person, Clayton Brothers, Arturo Sandoval. There were piano trios: Benny Green, Jeff Hamilton, Monty Alexander, Emmet Cohen. There were important players who performed in various all-star ensembles and/or appeared in an orchestra under the direction of John Clayton: Anat Cohen, Gary Smulyan, Wycliffe Gordon, Sean Jones, Michael Rodriguez, Lewis Nash, Joe LaBarbera, Terell Stafford, John Fedchock.
After seven days of music overkill, memories of the experience were as jumbled as the jambalaya you ate in New Orleans. But a few aural and visual impressions were so vivid they stood apart and kept coming back:
How Benny Green set the vibe for the week on the very first night. His repertoire came from a pure jazz strain, by players who composed: Duke Pearson, Harold Land, Stanley Turrentine, Hank Jones, himself. Very few pianists can overwhelm a theme with variations like Green. He can get you high on the thrill of sheer speed while he challenges your intellect to perceive the wholeness of his vast, complex designs.
How Trio Da Paz always works their magic and draws you inexorably into their elegant, sensuous, idealized world. Romero Lubambo, Nilson Matta and Duduka Da Fonseca have been together 30 years. They function like three tributaries to a single stream of consciousness. Lubambo is a virtuoso of intricate glistening five-finger melodies. Da Fonseca can play an elegy to his grandmother (“Dona Maria”) and make a drum kit sound like a voice of the heart.
How Jeff Clayton’s Horace Silver tribute locked Benny Green into his sweet spot, where he exulted over “Señor Blues” and “Nica’s Dream” and “Song for my Father”.
How the natural human soulfulness of Houston Person’s tenor saxophone sound embodied the core cultural values of this particular boat trip.
How a piano trio really can be led by a drummer, even when the pianist is as accomplished as Tamir Hendelman, if the drummer is Jeff Hamilton. However, bassist Christoph Luty stole the show with his yearning arco version of “Someone to Watch over Me”.
How hard it was to walk between venues without stopping in the Grand Foyer, where a noteworthy pianist like Renee Rosnes or Ted Rosenthal or Emmet Cohen was always playing. Nicki Parrott also performed there. When she sang in a small, flawless voice, accompanying herself on bass, songs like “The Very Thought of You” and “What a Diff’rence a Day Made” were stripped bare and allowed to stand clear.
How a project led by Marcus Miller, marking key moments in the life of Miles Davis (from “Now’s the Time” through “Tutu”), caused your own life to pass before your eyes. Guitarist Kurt Rosenwinkel was brilliant. Alto saxophonist Alex Han, seamlessly incorporating wild brays and shrieks into his floods of music, took the solo of the cruise on “So What”.
How The Cookers just keep kicking ass, keep issuing their calls to arms, keep commanding their anthems. Billy Harper’s “Priestess” was burned into the sea air.
How the Preservation Hall Jazz Band, one of the few disappointments of the cruise, visited the ship while it was docked in New Orleans and played the Las Vegas version of New Orleans jazz.
How the experience of the music was inseparable from its settings. On the eleventh deck at high noon, singer Veronica Swift (one of the hits of the cruise), accompanied by Emmet Cohen’s trio, wailed on “You Don’t Know What Love Is”. Around the room, beyond the tall windows, was the blue of the sky and the sea. The prow of the ship was cutting through the Gulf of Mexico, on the way to Cozumel. Later that day, the Clayton Brothers played their uplifting music while, through those same windows, the sun sank into the horizon.
How Kurt Elling may never find a more evocative backdrop for his art. He played on the fourth deck, at 10 pm, after the ship had departed New Orleans and was making its way down the Mississippi River toward the Gulf. As Elling sang his compelling stories, the lights of other boats on the dark river and lights on the shore slowly slid past the windows.