For years, Entertainment Cruise Productions Executive Director Michael Lazaroff has been trying to strike the right balance for a “contemporary jazz” cruise—more swinging than ECP’s Smooth Jazz outing, but more edgy than the straight-ahead Jazz Cruise.
After a flop in 2009 called the Playboy Jazz Cruise and some growing pains with the first Blue Note collaboration last year, Lazaroff hit his stride with Blue Note at Sea 2018, a casual, musically layered, diverse and luxurious week that began Jan. 27 in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida, with stops in Haiti, Jamaica and the Bahamas. With 65 artists playing 140 shows, this year’s event featured more hours of music than last year and counted about 2,000 fans filling the spiffy, 11-deck Celebrity Summit to capacity.
Blue Note at Sea offered A-list stars, such as Chick Corea, Dee Dee Bridgewater and Robert Glasper at the 1,000-seat Celebrity Theater and a neap tide of intense, up-and-coming artists, such as pianists Aaron Parks, Sullivan Fortner and trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire, in more intimate rooms. Revealing interviews, late night jams led by David Sanborn and stand-up comedy by Alonzo Bodden rounded out the program.
Though the week leaned a bit heavily on funk, soul and r&b, especially toward the end, one continually came upon delightful surprises: Fortner powering through “Donna Lee” with bassist Boris Koslov; Parks and Akinmusire floating through “Body and Soul”; Cuban pianist Harold Lopez-Nussa clanging out a montuño with his brother, Ruy, slapping the cajon he sat on. And that was just one night, on one deck.
Offering an ineluctably tender duet on “When I Fall in Love,” Corea, marking his first-ever jazz cruise, performed with bassist Marcus Miller, who also co-hosted the cruise along with Blue Note Records President Don Was. At the pianist’s main stage set with his trio—Cuban bassist Carlitos Del Puerto and drummer Marcus Gilmore—Corea followed his chipper classic “500 Miles High” with nods to Bill Evans (“Alice in Wonderland”), the trio breathing in and out as one, and Bud Powell (“Tempus Fugit”), with Gilmore’s percussion flowing like water under the ship’s keel. Spontaneous, charming and casual, Corea eschewed a performance of “Spain,” but his good nature made up for this at his informative Q&A, as he led the audience in a sing-along of the hit tune. Later, the 76-year-old, 22-time Grammy winner dropped by for one of Sanborn’s jams. Where else but a cruise could you hear such variety, with such a living room vibe?
Like Corea, Glasper also popped up in a variety of exhilarating environments, including an enchanting set with his acoustic trio (Vicente Archer, bass and Damion Reed, drums) that took in open spaces, disjunctive changeups and sometimes paired lyrical piano against nervous, hip-hop-influenced bass and drums. It was a combination that might have stumped some fans, until Glasper explained at his Q&A that he liked to let listeners ruminate and also liked “being uncomfortable.” Glasper bracketed a dynamite set alongside the Blue Note All-Stars with Ornette Coleman’s “Turnaround” and an infectious, African-fueled number inspired by a solo guitar-and-voice contribution by the dazzling Lionel Loueke.
Trombonist Wycliffe Gordon and vocalist Niki Haris (daughter of Gene Harris) tore up a refreshingly cliché-free Sunday morning gospel show, making saints of sinners with a rousing “The Presence Of The Lord Is Here.” Delving into another side of spirituality, Miller transported the crowd Monday night with haunting bass clarinet on his tune, “Goree,” inspired by that hell’s gate of the slave trade. He also matched wits with fellow funkmeister Maceo Parker, who did his Ray Charles impersonation, as well as playing a little flute and a lot of biting alto sax. This was soul-satisfying stuff, but Lalah Hathaway’s sleepy, nostalgic outing, which might profitably be dubbed emo-soul, was not. Dee Bridgewater, essaying her new soul project, Memphis … Yes, I’m Ready, was more plausible than in Monterey last year, but still felt like she was trying too hard to put over music that speaks very well for itself.
That said, Blue Note at Sea was an embarrassment of riches, perhaps even more embarrassing in that cruisers also got to lean back on the deck and gaze out at the line that divides the aquamarine Caribbean and the powder blue sky, never mind stops for swimming, snorkeling, hiking, shopping and all manner of other shore excursions. No question: ECP got it right this year. DB