Although Ann and I have been on numerous cruises, we’ve always eschewed “theme cruises” as we were more intent on exploring the destinations, trying to see everything we can. It’s at a point now that the same destinations seem to be included in any future cruise and frankly I’m all “cruised out.” I know I have no right to complain as we’ve been able to afford these experiences over the years, both economically and from a health perspective. So, with our last trip to Cuba, right before the Trump administration tragically and thoughtlessly shut down such a destination, we thought our cruising days were over.
Until friends we met, Linda and Mike, at the Double Roads Jupiter Jazz Society where we’ve been going for years asked us whether we’ve ever considered the Jazz Cruise of which they’ve gone on seven of the 20 years it’s been given. We looked over the list of performers and when we spied Emmet Cohen, one of our favorite Jazz pianists, that was enough for us so we booked it. We saw Cohen at Dizzy’s Coca Cola in New York City and were blown away. I covered that performance near the end of this entry.
There were other artists who we’ve heard or seen listed as well and then there were scores of others we were not familiar with. Technically, no photos were allowed to be taken of these artists, but here and there I saw some sneaking a shot, so I did a little cheating myself. But unlike many others, I recorded no videos. That would be a strict no-no and unfair to the musicians. We bought four CDs on board of some of our favorite performers.
“Strategic” decisions one had to make each morning as to what venue to attend. There were so many concerts scheduled, many happening at the same time, it would be impossible to attend all, unless one wanted to float around and stand in the back to catch a part of one, then another, and still another. BUT if you really wanted to hear the whole set, you had to be there early to get a decent seat.
Although ships like the Celebrity Infinity have a major theatre, it can hold only one event at a time. Other events were going on in the lounges, the lobby, and even the dining room and frequently, the kind of jazz we wanted to hear (trios) would be in these smaller venues. This is what I would call straight up or classical jazz, not smooth or blues (there are, believe it or not, separate cruises for those). However, some blues – inevitably and enjoyably -- gets incorporated in straight up trios.
The organization that handles this cruise in effect charters the entire ship and has complete control over everything except housekeeping, the food and the destinations. They even bring in their own baby grand Yamaha pianos and have tuners at work between sets. Naturally they have their own sound engineers and production teams. The thing I noticed the most, being on so many non-theme cruises before, was the music in the hallways, elevators, restaurants, etc. Instead of the pabulum which passes as “music” for the general public, all public venues had only mellow Jazz piped in and it was such a pleasure.
I kept a notebook to try to record my impressions, the songs we heard, and interesting highlights but by the time we returned I found I had 44 pages of notes, far too many to record in an entry so here I’m going to only hit the highlights of the highlights if you will, and in this regard, I had the help of Ann who wrote an email to friends and family about the cruise as we were driving back from the Port of Miami. As we agree on just about anything relating to this music, I’ve incorporated many of her observations so from here on in my observations are comingled with hers.
In full disclosure, as much as I play the piano at a fairly competent level, I am but a soloist trying to interpret the Great American Songbook, focusing on the melody as I feel it. I don’t play with a group, and therefore can’t “jam” and I’m not considered a jazz pianist. In spite of having some understanding of music I wish I knew more about jazz interpretation techniques.
I could try to arrange this chronologically as that is how my notes are arranged, but instead am going to skip around and hit highlights. There were so many of these, it is hard to say one was more meaningful than another. But Ann and I agree that a special moment was not actually a performance, but it was a session in which Oscar Peterson’s widow, Kelly, was interviewed by Dick Golden with Oscar’s genius protégé, Benny Green, sitting alongside her. She talked about how they met, more than 30 years difference in age, and the massive recording project she produced after his death. It’s called “Oscar, With Love” and features all original Peterson compositions played by some of the best jazz pianists in the world.
It came about sort of serendipitously. After Peterson had passed away, his grand piano in his music studio needed tuning. The technician triumphantly announced after tuning it that it was as good as new, but if it is rarely played, it is not a healthy environment for such an instrument. From that the idea was born. Kelly thought “what if” she could invite some of the top pianists in the jazz world to their home in Toronto over a period of time, working around their busy schedules, to play Peterson’s own pieces on Peterson’s own piano and have them recorded for posterity. Actually it includes 7 new pieces written in his memory and 19 of his own widely known works. This tribute album was not financially motivated, but a labor of love. And so, over time, they came from all over the world and recorded, Makoto Ozone, Benny Green, Michel Legrand, Renee Rosnes, Bill Charlap, Ramsey Lewis, Monty Alexander, Chick Corea, to name BUT A FEW!
|Benny Green performing with Sullivan Fortner|
It was such an emotional discussion, especially when Benny Green (chosen by Oscar as his protégé after Peterson won the prestigious Glenn Gould prize in 1993) told how Oscar surprised him one Christmas morning , early in his career, with a gold bracelet inscribed, “The Torch is Passed”. There wasn’t a dry eye in the audience.
This nicely segues into another high point. When Benny Green sat at the keyboard, either with his trio, solo or with just a saxophonist, we were clearly in the presence of one of the greatest pianists we’ll ever hear. He is also one of the shyest, most humble, self effacing human beings on earth. We never missed his performance. And it appeared almost no one else on board did either, including all the other musicians. There was such a palpable display of love and respect between all of them.
Green in particular feels the responsibility to carry on the tradition, mentoring other musicians, including a young pianist he has adopted as his protégé, Sullivan Fortner, who he called up to the stage as he was in the audience to play a four handed rendition of Green’s "Phoebe's Samba," the performers effortlessly switching from treble to bass. Simply remarkable and moving.
|Sullivan Fortner, Benny Green|
In an interview more than 25 years ago, Green stated his approach to music and it is still the guiding star of his performances: “I try to sing a song from within and try to translate that to the piano. It’s still that way. Ideally, you’re playing what you feel. You want to react to the moment, come more from your heart than a strictly intellectual place. The technical knowledge that we accumulate is a means, like the vocabulary of a musical sentence, but it still comes back to the feeling that’s in your heart. It’s a relationship between yourself and your instrument and you really want to form a closer bond.”
One of the last days on ship we were trying to catch a fast lunch at the Ocean Grill to get to our next set. That main informal restaurant can be quite crowded but we managed to find a little table by a window and set our stuff down to grab a plate and a meal. When we returned, we noticed that sitting at the table next to us, their table nearly touching ours, was Benny Green and two other musicians talking shop. Naturally, Ann and I just quietly ate and eavesdropped. And naturally, what were they talking about? Their craft and their shared histories. “What ever happened to so and so?” “I remember playing with Ray Brown and….” It was interesting to hear Green talk among his own kind, a little more animated than he is with his listening audience but still, in a quiet, unassuming way. One could sense the admiration of his table mates. The language they used was musical in its own way, be-bop, cool talk, if you will. As much as the temptation we had to request a selfie with them, we deferred to their privacy. It’s their church, not ours.
Musicians gather with Emmet Cohn, Sullivan Fortner, and Benny Green, Right to Left
We also tried to catch Emmet Cohen when we could, who as I mentioned before is a young pianist we were fortunate to have seen once before, at Dizzy’s in NY. He literally kicked off his fantastic career on board this Jazz Cruise in 2011 at age 21! A showstopper pianist, he was all over the ship, playing with his trio or sitting in with other groups, thrilling everyone with his masterful piano technique. He accompanied a great upcoming jazz singer, Veronica Swift, whose swaggering demeanor seems to belie her age of only 25. I was particularly spellbound by her concert on the main stage (Emmet accompanying) as it was very Great American Songbook focused. So many songs being played and sung by others on the cruise were written by them and thus not recognizable by me. I like the old classics (but also appreciate the new pieces by the young artists). But, oh, Emmet Cohen, he’s so young and personable, and what a future in store for him in the jazz world.
Onto another highlight, sort of a personal one as well. When we lived in Westport, Ct., my dentist also happened to be Dave Brubeck’s dentist at the time. Occasionally I saw him in the waiting room early in the morning so we’d exchange some pleasantries, my saying of course how much I admired his music (and wished I could play the piano half as well – I think he said, there is still time, but that was way back then). Well, the Brubeck Brothers Quartet was on board, including two of Dave Brubeck’s sons (Chris on base guitar and the trombone) and Dan on the drums, both talented musicians in their own right, with Chris doing the MC-ing.
During one of their performances in the main theatre the Brubeck Brothers Quartet paid a loving musical and photographic tribute to their parents on their father’s 100th anniversary, along with home movies. It was so moving, prefaced first by videos of Barak Obama and Bill Clinton’s testimonials to him when he received the Kennedy Center Honors in 2009. Bill Clinton related an amusing story about meeting Brubeck saying how much he admired - "Blue Rondo à la Turk," and Brubeck who had a suspicion about politicians challenged him to hum the bridge which Clinton did. From there on it was smooth sailing for the two of them. We had one moment to chat with Chris Brubeck and reminisce about occasionally running into his Dad. Very personable and approachable.
|Stage set up for Jeff Hamilton Trio|
There are so many performances we went to and groups we enjoyed. I’d say the one we never failed to catch, no matter what the conflict, was Jeff Hamilton, a drummer extraordinaire and his trio with Tamir Hendelman on piano and Jon Hamar on base which knocked us out. He and Lewis Nash, also on board, were acknowledged to be the two greatest drummers alive. We’ve never seen the likes of them. Although all the musicians were of the highest level of professionalism and craftsmanship, Hamilton’s group was the most rehearsed, carefully orchestrated by Hamilton who has played with the greats in his career, the Count Basie Orchestra, Oscar Peterson, and the Ray Brown trio (many of the greats on board emerged from Ray Brown’s tutelage).
While Hamilton is the best and most creative drummer we’ve ever had the privilege of seeing and hearing, Tamir Hendelman ‘s piano is in the same class as Benny Green and Emmet Cohen. We bought his solo CD while on board. And their relatively new base player, John Hamar, is at the top of his class as well, in fact composing one of Hamilton’s standard’s now, “Bucket of Fat,” just a fabulous jazz piece which of course starts off with the bass and ends there as well. They play many of the Great American Songbook classics as well, their version of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “I Have Dreamed” from The King and I leaving everyone speechless, tearful. Hamar starts it off bowing the bass and Hendelman turns into a master class of soulfulness. All of this arranged by Hamilton. While they played “You Make Me Feel So Young” I could see Chris Brubeck in the audience across the room grooving to the beat, a true testimony to the high esteem in which Hamilton’s group is held – other musicians wanting to hear them in action.
Keyboard Capers Musicians
Another favorite program was on the last full day -- “Piano Capers” with the dozen or so most creative pianists on board sitting down one after the other dazzling the audience with virtuoso performances, choosing eclectic pieces either of their own compositions or paying tribute to a mentor. It was incredibly moving. Naturally it was MCed by Emmet Cohen, the rising star, who kicked off the program with a Scott Joplin piece to give full attribution to the roots from which all this great music grew. A nice technical touch is they projected the hands of the pianist at work on the large screen on stage. Amazing to watch.
|Emmet Cohen at Keyboard Capers|
One day I attended Shelly Berg’s “Jazz U,” a learning session on the basics of performing this art. I now like to say that I know enough about music and playing the piano to now know how little I know. Berg is Frost Professor of Music at the Frost School of Music at the University of Miami and many of the musicians on board have been taught by him. Remember what Benny Green said about the technical knowledge being a means to express what is in one’s heart? Berg gave a brief demonstration of the scales he routinely runs, in every key, starting anyplace in the key. Maybe if someone would grant me another lifetime, and I could take 10,000 hours of instruction I’d be able to do that, but I came away from the lecture resolved to learn more variations of the chords I play. If I could just do that I could create better voicing. And as Green said about being surrounded by all these great pianists on board, it’s not a competition. I have to be content with that. Incidentally, we also attended a performance of the Shelly Berg Trio which disproves that those who can do and those who can’t teach. Berg can do it all.
And to add to all this, going night and day from venue to venue, frequently overlapping musical presentations, swinging big bands, singers Steve Tyrell, John Pizzarelli, Kurt Elling, and a young and upcoming new talent Victoria Swift as I mentioned previously. Among many others, and there was also a highly talented Israeli clarinetist, Anat Cohen. She was with an all female group under the leadership of another remarkable talent, pianist Renee Rosnes. Anat also sat in with the Emmet Cohen trio. Well we could go on and on because it was just a veritable nonstop musical extravaganza of outstanding jazz performers. And we have barely named a handful of the scores professional performers on board and that doesn’t include the passenger jazz jams, and there were so many talented amateurs performing.
We loved everything about this experience so much that we did something very uncharacteristic of us, we booked it for next year!