Floating and Swinging in the Eastern Caribbean – part 3

Tuesday, November 13, 2007
As I strolled the Lido deck, coffee in hand, we were still in transit from Nassau, on our way to St. Thomas, playing hide and seek with the emerging sun. Here I was, thousands of miles away from my Pasadena/Altadena home, enjoying the newness of places and people, reveling in the urge to do absolutely nothing and chatting with everyone, passengers and crew alike, and who do I meet but Ralph and Kitty and Joyce, and where do they live? Pasadena! I didn’t find out until I got home that they are hometown celebs, so to speak. Ralph and Kitty are local activists who have been serving the Pasadena community for many years, Ralph being on the Board of the Levitt Pavilion, and Joyce recently retired from the Pasadena City Council, was honored by Pasadena Democratic state Sen. Jack Scott the 21st State Senate District Woman of the Year. And to top it off, all three are well known to my two of my closest friends, Phil who once worked for the Pasadena School District and Regina, a publicist turned jewelry-designer who lives in Pasadena and handles press and promotion for several local arts festivals.

cruisejimmytshirt.jpgBy noon it was a breezy 78-degrees with winds from the East-North-East at 22knots (25.3mph) and poolside was crowded with jazz cruisers (including Jimmy Heath, left) all wearing their blue cruise t-shirts that entitled them to free drinks. Pina Coladas in the sun made me miss the Keyboard Capers (a series of piano solos) but I did make it later to hear the first four tunes in Lynne Arriale’s first set before our early dinner seating.

They played Alone Together, Evidence (Monk), Home (an Arriale original) and Jones’ Bones, but I think that the group was suffering from the same sound difficulties in the Queen’s Lounge that had plagued Clairdee the day before. The set was reminiscent of Ahmad Jamal in that Lynne wandered in and out of many different moods within a single song, but the transitions did not flow smoothly and I felt a push-me pull-you tug of war between the players (Thomson Kneeland on bass and Steve Davis on drums), exacerbated by the Davis’ embellishments that lacked rhythm or groove. I am familiar with Davis’s playing in this group, having a few years ago quite favorably reviewed Lynne’s trio recording Live in Montreux, so either they were having a bad day, or more likely, getting ready to kill the sound man.

Cruise ships are not built for high fidelity sound, but jazz cruises have nonetheless maintained and even grown in popularity. Where once there was only 1 a year, there are now several…here and here and here…so I guess that’s a good thing.

cruiselonnie2.jpgAfter dinner we caught Dr. Lonnie Smith’s organ trio upstairs in the Crow’s Nest for an early set. Dr. Lonnie was a delightful surprise — I know him and love him as a gentle soul, but I’ve never been keen on the organ. Truth be told, I would have said flat out that I don’t much care for jazz organ, but I was prepared to enjoy what I could. Never would I have thought that long before the end of his set I’d want to buy the CD. (Yes, I did go and buy one – The Turbanator.) cruisepeterb.jpgWith Peter Bernstein on guitar and Anthony Pinciotti on drums, the opening was heavily rhythmic, loud and kind of thick (full-throttle organ sound), and I watched incredulously as little old ladies — both black and white blue-hairs — swayed gently, almost imperceptibly as they fell under the spell this turban-topped doctor of organology who wears a mischievous smile and sings along with himself as he plays (here’s a vidclip from Nashville).

They opened with Freedom Jazz Dance, and followed with a triple parody of Lonnie singing Misty (Lonnie Mattress/Johnny Mathis), Sunshine of My Life (imitating Stevie), and You Sure Look Good To Me a la Elvis. Then came what I considered to be his tour-de-force, piece de resistance – Squeeze Me, taken oh so slow with lots of space — a lesson in how to build a song and a set. After that they got down and dirty again with Simone (?) (it sounded like Wade In The Water to me) and Roy Hargrove couldn’t resist the urge to sit in. Their last selection started with mystical, ethereal, futuristic sounds, an almost underwater quality, and the tune turned out to be Caravan, complete with an extended drum solo.

After Lonnie’s set we tried to listen to Cyrus Chestnut’s Trio but the Queen’s Lounge was just too cold. We stopped at Ocean Bar but Eric Alexander’s group was too loud, so we opted for a quick nap before Clairdee’s two late sets in the Ocean Bar starting at 10:30pm – we were relieved to experience better sound and much better shows.

Tomorrow…St. Thomas.

Floating and Swinging in the Eastern Caribbean – part 2

Monday November 12, 2007
I arose early as always. It was before seven when I entered the Lido in search of coffee. Having traveled 183 nautical miles at an average speed of 14.6 knots (16.8 mph), we were about to dock in Nassau – a mere 8 minutes from first line ashore to safely docked at 7:10am.

lonniesmith.jpgOrgan master Dr. Lonnie Smith was up early too, and I had breakfast with him and a documentary filmmaker named Bill. Conversation ranged from whether or not we wanted to go ashore and peruse the Straw Market, to more serious ideas such as the home for older musicians that Lonnie wishes existed, one where the older musicians could play occasionally and teach the younger ones who would come to a ‘school’ next door.

Clairdee was scheduled for double-duty today. At 1 pm was the Gospel Hour in the Vista Lounge with Cyrus Chestnut Trio and Clairdee. Cyrus’ trio (with bassist is Dezron Douglas, and drummer Neal Smith) played the first 40 minutes or so. Mesmerized by Cyrus’ big fat chords, fast runs, and dynamic shifts and turns, I lost track of the songs, but remember they opened with Junior Mance’s Jubilation, and Cyrus played some beautiful, reflective solos that showed his prodigious pianistic talent, more meditative than a shout of joy. Clairdee joined them for three songs at the end – Please Send Me Someone to Love (Percy Mayfield), His Eye Is On the Sparrow (lyricist Civilla D. Martin and composer Charles H. Gabriel, and This Little Light of Mine; before it was over we were back at sea.

It’s just another 80-degree partly-cloudy day in paradise. The next leg of the trip was to be longest – 843 nm (969.45 miles) from Nassau to St Thomas – so we did not remain long in Nassau, departing the dock just before 2 pm and picking up a little speed (averaging 20.8 knots or 24 mph).

At 3:30 in the Queen’s Lounge, a medium-sized room with a small stage, Clairdee began her first set with her own trio. Thanks to an inadequate sound set-up, and no time to sound-check, none of the musicians could hear each other let alone hear the vocals. The result was a timid-sounding musical accompaniment that provided no foundation for the singer — it was something of a disaster, but the show went on and subsequent sets were much better. Norman Simmon, wearing his producer’s hat, has been working with Clairdee on a new album and, though he wasn’t on he ship, we could hear the results of the work they’ve been doing. In fact, but the end of the week, Clairdee had a whole new group of fans wondering where she’s been hiding until now.

cruisedinner.jpgFollowing dinner, during which Jimmy Heath had us cracking up with his funny lines (old meal, you know the stuff that older folks eat for breakfast, and tales of a meter maid, someone who wrote a song using in a whole bunch of different time signatures) we staked out seats in the Ocean Bar to hear the Lewis Nash Quartet with bassist Peter Washington, pianist Renee Rosnes and Jimmy Greene on tenor and soprano sax. Not only did we stay for both sets, but we sat right next to the drum set which is a testament to Lewis’ touch and dynamic range — not once did I have to cover my ears. In Lewis’ hands melody and harmony get just as much attention as rhythm.

They started the set with Red Top, “a blues classic,” said Lewis, followed by an original melody by Renee called Dizzy’s Spell because it is based on the chord structure of Dizzy Gillespie’s Con Alma. Jimmy played soprano on this one and the rhythm section was so tight, so in sync, that I felt it was hard for him to fit in — but my reaction may well have been influenced by my preference for the tenor sound over soprano. Jimmy switched back to tenor on Ask Me Now and I felt it to be much more expressive — whether that is a sign of his comfort or my bias I can’t tell you, but he sure has a wonderful warm tenor tone. They ended the set with Stablemates by Benny Golsen. Renee plays a lot of notes but each and every note says something, and that’s saying a lot.

The second set started with a Monk tune titled Eronel (Lenore backwards) after which Lewis acknowledged in the audience his elementary school music teacher. Then they played Lee Morgan’s Sea Aura (?), a tune that I never would have known by name but I instantly recognized the melody. Lewis has a way of imparting lots of info but you never feel like he’s talking a lot. He began the next tune with hands on his drums, then soft mallets, brushes and finally sticks propelling us into You and the Night and the Music. It was the rolling rhythms and not the waves that had me rockin’ in my seat.

Later we headed back into the Vista Lounge to catch the Dizzy Alumni Big Band set at 10 pm. Seated next to us were two ladies and we began to talk while waiting for the sound people to work out their problems. (John says that when we’re in an elevator I’ll know everyone’s life story before the doors open.) Dorothy J. Frasier Brooks and her friend Sarah are both from Chicago. Dorothy, who is 84-years-young and now resides in Vegas, knew all of John’s friends and haunts from back in the day (that being the 1930s and early 40s). What a treat for John to talk with people who share first-hand his frame of reference. cruise_jimmyheath.jpg

Finally, the band hit. The set included Hot House (Tad Dameron) with solos by Jimmy Heath (pictured on the right), Roy Hargrove (bottom left of Heath picture), and Eric Gunnerson; Con Alma (Dizzy Gillespie) featuring James Moody (pictured below, left), Claudio Roditi and Slide Hampton; Jessica’s Day (Quincy Jones) during which Roy Hargrove removed his mute to ‘talk about it” with Mark Deadman picking up the conversation from there; and I Mean You (Thelonious Monk, arranged by Dennis Mackrel) with solos by Eric Gunnerson, Steve Davis on trombone, John Lee on bass, with the flutes counter balanced by Gary Smulyan (bottom right of Heath picture) on baritone sax playing out the melody at the end. Also featured during the set were Jay Ashby, Wycliffe Gordon, Antonio Hart, and Jonathan Bosack. And if all of this was not entertaining enough, we were then treated to “a new trio of girl singers” – Roy Hargrove, James Moody and Slide Hampton scatting and yodeling their way through Blue Boogie. The set ended with Things to Come set afire by Roy Hargrove, the Claudio Roditi (pictured below, right), and Gisbert (next to Roy in Heath photo) as they swapped 8, 4 and 2-bar phrases ending together on the highest of hi notes. And so another day comes to a close on the high Cs.

cruise_moody.jpg cruise_claudio.jpg

Floating and Swinging in the Eastern Caribbean – part 1

Our last jazz cruise was aboard the SS Norway with Joe Williams. It seems like forever ago – ten years, actually. After he died we hadn’t had occasion to go again…until now. This year Clairdee was part of a stellar lineup that included the Dizzy Alumni Big Band (with lots of our friends including Jimmy Heath, James Moody, Slide Hampton and Jay Ashby), Lewis Nash’s group with Renee Rosnes and Peter Washington (one of John’s favorite bassists), the Cyrus Chestnut trio and many, many more. The jazz cruises have been under new management for some time now, and the Holland America line has replaced the Norwegian line as host, so we booked passage on the ms Westerdam.

We flew to Ft Lauderdale on Saturday and spent the night in Hollywood. The usual arrival confusion and airport antics haven’t changed, especially for bass players – over-sized bass coffins coming down the luggage shoots despite the extra tariff paid for special handling, hotel vans that are too small to accommodate the equipment…. But jazz musicians are, by and large, road warriors and they cope. Clairdee’s bassist snagged a van built to take disabled passengers in wheelchairs, and soon enough we were feasting on cracked crab dinners. “Tell Sal that Johnny sent you,” said the hotel concierge as he pointed us toward the upstairs at Billy’s Stone Crab restaurant.

Bright and early Sunday morning the musicians gathered in the lobby to board buses that would take us to the dock. More general confusion as we waited dockside on the buses for awhile, watching the previous week’s cruise passengers disembark, but soon enough we were through the immigration lines, duly quizzed and photographed. They had to put us somewhere until our staterooms were ready, so we were directed to the Lido Deck for lunch. Food, again; besides listening to music, eating and drinking, talking and sunning were to be the primary activities of the week. By noon the skies were partly cloudy, the temperature was about 80F and winds at 12 knots (13.8 mph) were blowing east-north-east, a moderate breeze, just strong enough to rustle small branches ashore.

westerdam.jpgAt 950 feet long and 106 feet wide, The Westerdam, built in 2004, is just slightly smaller than the Norway (a difference of less than 14,000 sq ft. or about 12%) – walk three times around the Westerdam promenade and you’ve traveled one mile. The ship has 11 decks, 14 elevators, lots of stairs, two swimming pools, bars, lounges, a casino, even an internet café. Our cabin was on Deck 5, the Verandah Deck half way between the mid and aft of the ship. It was compact, but we had a small couch and the floor-to-ceiling glass door to the private deck with two chairs made it feel spacious. As we waited for our luggage to appear, we explored our room in search of drawer space, which we finally discovered under the bed hidden by a dust ruffle.

cruiselifevestjohn.jpgcruiselifevestdevra.jpgThe first order of ship’s business was the mandatory lifeboat drill at 4 pm. I thought it would take longer for 1802 guests to be logged in as present and accounted for, but at exactly 4:56 the crew let go the lines and we were un-docked. Thirty minutes later the sea voyage officially commenced and Nassau lay 183 nautical miles (210.45 statute miles) away as we cruised off relatively slowly at 14.6 knots (or about 16.8 miles per hour).

And then it was time to eat, again. We were assigned to the first dinner seating, 5:30 pm, on the upper level of the Vista Dining room. Table 69 seats 10, and our tablemates were Slide Hampton and Evelyn, Jimmy Heath and Mona, James Moody and Linda, and Walter Nisenson and Paula. Overall, the food was excellent and the service impressive. (more about the crew later)

The opening night festivities – Showtime In The Vista Lounge – took place in the ship’s official showroom with a proper stage and sound system, but with arena seating spanning two-decks in height, controlling the sound for jazz groups would be an ongoing challenge. The program was designed to give the audience a little sample of what was to come, and with so many performers aboard, groups and soloists were paired up in make-shift configurations and asked to play one tune only.

Lynne Arriale’s trio joined by saxophonist Houston Person opened with Namely You, a song I remember from the musical show Li’l Abner, lyrics by Johnny Mercer. Next up was baritone vocalist Jamie Davis with a vibrato a la Eckstine paired with saxman Plas Johnson. Plas’s rendition felt truer to the lyric than the actual vocal and so brought to mind an earlier dinner conversation when Jimmy Heath old a story about being in Copenhagen and Ben Webster asking him to write out the words to For Heaven Sake because he wanted to play it – Ben knew the melody and changes but wouldn’t play it until he knew the words, the intent. I’d heard this about Ben Webster before, from John, and he frequently imparts this same bit of wisdom to up-and-coming singers and always attributes it to Ben Webster.

They were followed by a comedy break – Pete Barbuti backed by Eddie Higgins on piano, Tom Kennedy on bass, Ernie Adams on drums – and the audience loved it. I’m not a big fan of schtick, but Pete is funny and I have a residual soft-spot for him as he was one of Joe Williams’ favorites.

Next up was the oh-so-tight trio of Renee Rosnes, Peter Washington and Lewis Nash augmented by Gil Castiano on trumpet and Charles McPherson on alto sax. The trio alone was cooking, a simmering blend perfected by lot of experience — like the roux of the best gumbo — but when the horns came in they never found the groove – lots of notes in a hurry — where’s the fire?

A bass and bone duo? Bassist Jay Leonhart and trombonist Wycliffe Gordon are both consummate musicians who manage a cerebral blend of comedy and music that I can and do appreciate. During a very clever rendition of Lester Leaps In they even switched roles so that Jay was singing the trombone and Wycliffe was clucking the bass. (Perhaps you had to be there, or hear it for yourself on their CD titled This Rhythm On My Mind – I bought the CD, thirteen tracks with a tiny bit of sax or percussion assistance on three. If I had not heard them live the first night, I would never have thought to buy it as I would have assumed it was more gimmick and/or comedy than music. That would have been a sorry mistake.)

Then Clairdee joined Jay for a sassy bass and vocal duet on Do Nothin’ Til You Hear From Me. And the program concluded with Mike LeDonne on piano, Christoph Luty on bass, Jeff Hamilton on drums, Eric Alexander on sax, Ken Peplowski on clarinet and Arturo Sandoval on trumpet.

There was plenty more to hear in the various rooms afloat that night, but we were pooped and off to sleep we went.

PS: All of the artist links in this posting take you to YouTube videoclips