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All Aboard the Blue Note at Sea Jazz Cruise

Jon Newey experiences the unique musical possibilities of the Blue Note at Sea jazz cruise

It’s early Monday morning on 29 January and the day has dawned surprisingly clear. Overnight the grey, moderately choppy seas of the Windward Passage twixt Cuba and Haiti has calmed considerably to welcome a hazy blue sky, threaded by whispers of high cloud and cushioned by flat, tranquil waters. Time then to drop anchor at the Hispaniola Peninsula on Haiti’s north coast, the very spot where Christopher Columbus ran aground on Christmas Day 1492. Nowadays a palm fringed private tourist beach and coral reef known as Labadee, this was our initial port of call, after a day and a half at sea, for the musicians and passengers on the Blue Note at Sea 2018 cruise to hit dry land and soak up some warm Caribbean rays.

The night before, Blue Note records’ president and cruise co-host Don Was had introduced two stellar performances by the Chick Corea Trio featuring the remarkable Cuban bassist Carlitos Del Puerto and drummer Marcus Gilmore, the grandson of Roy Haynes. In relaxed but focused form Corea contrasted immaculate taste and bubbling tension on a taut repertoire, ranging from his own ‘500 Miles High’ and ‘Anna’s Tango’, to a homage to his key influences including Bill Evans, Bud Powell and Duke Ellington, pushed by this expansive and empathic rhythm section. The pianist had warmed up the night before guesting with bass giant Marcus Miller and his band, the centerpiece of which was a magnificent Miles Davis melody featuring trumpeter Russell Gunn, which ranged from ‘If I Were A Bell’ to ‘All Blues’ and ‘Jean Pierre’, and closed on a passionate duet of ‘When I Fall in Love’ with Miller on bass clarinet.

(Chick Corea: ‘contrasted immaculate taste and bubbling tension on a taut repertoire’)

But hey, this was just the opening 36 hours of Blue Note at Sea, which had already packed in standout performances from Dee Dee Bridgewater and her soulful Memphis Yes I’m Ready show as well as José James’ imaginative reworkings of Bill Withers’ songs, drummer Kendrick Scott’s impressive Oracle, featuring Lionel Loueke, Marcus Strickland and Aaron Parks, and intense sets from Ambrose Akinmusire and Russell Gunn as the Celebrity Summit liner sailed for seven days around the Caribbean islands of Haiti, Jamaica and the Bahamas’ Nassau and Cococay.

Now in its second year, Blue Note at Sea is run by Entertainment Cruise Productions, who’ve racked up two decades’ experience of producing jazz cruises. It’s a veritable jazz festival at sea where this vast cruise ship is given a jazz makeover, including the main stage and five performance venues, club spaces, bars and quality restaurants, with over 70 musicians, multiple sound crews and three piano tuners on board to entertain, excite and educate 2,000 jazz loving passengers. ECP produce this cruise in association with the Blue Note record label and Blue Note jazz clubs, and executive director Michael Lazaroff, who began the company with his mother, Anita Berry, a jazz cruise agent, is deeply immersed in providing a jazz experience like no other.

“We’ve done almost 80 full ship charter cruises, most of them jazz, starting with The Jazz Cruise in 2001,” says Lazaroff over coffee in the ship’s Café al Bacio. “This is the same straightahead Jazz Cruise that sails next week for the 19th consecutive year. We have a Smooth Jazz Cruise too, that started in 2004, but I’m a jazz fan and I wanted to do a cruise that is more contemporary. I couldn’t think of a name, then I met Don Was when his band, Was Not Was, played our 1980s-themed cruise. We started talking and Blue Note records encompasses a broader range of music and has wonderful credibility, so we came up with Blue Note at Sea, and Stephen Bensusan of Blue Note jazz clubs also came on board, so we had this kinda tri-partite production going on.”

(Ambrose Akinmusire delivered a tense set and also collaborated with Aaron Parks)

Marcus Miller has had a longtime involvement with the jazz cruises too, both as a performer and host. “Marcus has been the mainstay of our cruises for a long time,” says Lazaroff. “He has been the host of all our Smooth Jazz Cruises and now the Blue Note Cruises. Marcus has a credibility among all the musicians and has all the elements that are important in this particular event. We try to provide people with an immersive jazz experience. If all we did was present jazz concerts at sea then there would be no reason for people to spend the money because they can see these musicians elsewhere. But what they can’t do is see them in the intimate settings and many different collaborations over the cruise week. Our music director, [saxophonist] Eric Marienthal, takes these artists and sidemen and creates an additional programme of duos, trios and other new line-ups that gives us a lot more music.”

It’s this particular aspect that gives Blue Note at Sea its unique platform and atmosphere, with a genuine sense of community and shared values among both musicians and audience. At regular jazz festivals the musicians arrive, play the concert and split. Here they are on board all week, which gives a fertile opportunity for jams, one-off collaborations, Q&A sessions, workshops and a chance for passengers to chat with the musicians.

“I love these collaborations, and I heard Aaron Parks and Ambrose Akinmusire play together earlier and they just have to make a record,” Don Was tells me as we sit watching the waves after his captivating Q&A audience session. “There’s something about being on the water, the motion and looking at the water going by that has healing properties that are similar to meditation. Looking at the water is meditation, and it puts you in a conducive state for listening to music.”

The evening before, Charles Lloyd and the Marvels, featuring Bill Frisell, Reuban Rogers, Eric Harland and pedal steel guitarist Greg Leisz, played two utterly hypnotic performances on the main stage. Opening up with an ominous interpretation of Dylan’s ‘Masters Of War’, an apt choice given the worldwide rise of bullying, authoritarian ‘strongman’ leaders, Lloyd’s forceful dark probings are given a spacey edge by Leisz’s soaring textures, while Frisell takes Lloyd’s flute-driven ‘Tagore On The Delta’ deep into the mystic. In his 80th year Lloyd is reaching new levels of spiritual beauty and Don Was, who produced the Marvels’ I Long To See You album, was equally blown away. “Charles loves the pedal steel and the Marvels draw on the textures and sounds he grew up with. When they segued from ‘Shenandoah’ into ‘Forest Flower’ it was unbelievable.”

Other highlights of Blue Note at Sea, and there were indeed many, included an expansive piano trio set from Robert Glasper; the fizzing urgency and imagination of the Blue Note All Stars with Glasper, Loueke, Strickland and Akinmusire; the David Sanborn band hosting the nightly Blue Note Club sessions with Geoff Keezer, Wycliffe Gordon, Billy Kilson and guests: Lalah Hathaway debuting tracks from her upcoming album, and Dr Lonnie Smith’s Trio hitting a sublime Hammond B3 groove where spiritual funk meets psychedelic jazz. But let’s leave the last word to Mr Was, whose feel-good presence, along with co-host Marcus Miller, permeated this unforgettable jazz at sea experience. “I find being here incredibly soothing and you add to that the jazz festival on board and I fucking love it. I don’t want to get off, and if I didn’t have a session in Miami with Lonnie Smith I’d stay on as a passenger for The Jazz Cruise which happens next week.”