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2007 North Sea Jazz Cruise Day 4: Heaven And Hell

Mark Sabbatini By

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Day 1 | Day 2-3 | Day 4 | Day 5 | Day 6 | Day 7 | Day 8 | Day 9-12

"We're here to celebrate the power of the Lord, as evidenced by this rocking boat."

Healing powers were very much alive, and not just for seasick passengers, as those words opened the Sunday morning jazz gospel service on Day 4 of the inaugural North Sea Jazz Cruise as the ship steered through rough waters between Germany and Sweden. Some close-minded attitudes (uh, OK, mine) got a thorough shaking and one of those touching personal moments one doesn't expect from a major player on a big stage were reviving regardless of faith.

Maybe it's best to start with the following confession: I've never been particularly fond of Kirk Whalum.

One of a large breed of smooth musicians who eschews discovery for commercial success, I scoff. Sure, he's got his gospel albums as a way of carving out his own niche, but I visited and graduated from that scene right around the time Jim Bakker and Jimmy Swaggart were experiencing revelations about the all-important virtue of forgiveness.

But in main performance hall, Whalum took the stage alone and welcomed the 80 percent capacity crowd to his "living room."

"We're from diverse backgrounds, but we're here because we all love music," he said. "But I would suggest we all have something more in common. For instance, when the boat rocks this way, we all don't have a choice."

A cannon-like explosion cracked through the theater at that exact moment as an extra large wave slammed into the hull, ensuring a hearty round of icebreaking laughs and applause.

He played a gentle opening hymn unaccompanied (he said something about "I Come To The Garden Alone," but I'm unsure if it was the title or merely the theme), mostly a straight melody with a modest amount of embellishing. At that moment I had no concept if this was a solo or group hour, but enlightenment lay just ahead.

"We're going to just sort of let this grow from here, as we try to do in life," Whalum said, calling keyboardist Bobby Sparks to the stage.

They played a duet of "What A Friend We Have In Jesus," again true to the melody, but Sparks expanded on the embellishments with constant dashes of note rolling at the end of his phrases, punctuating them with some shakes and bends. Whalum followed the keyboardist's lead by stretching a bit more before they smoothed the waters to finish. Saxophonist Keith Anderson and Dean Brown (starting with a harmonica before switching to guitar) were next to join.

"I don't know what we're going to do, but we'll tell you about it," Whalum said as they huddled up.

Everybody but Sparks got in a tight circle as they launched into a traditional hand-clapping gospel arrangement of "Amen," each doing free-blowing interpretations of the melody. Brown broke off into a full solo well off away theme that spoke cleanly rather than with pitches and bends, Whalum following with a bouncy gait of brisk choppy notes. The final group jam progressed up the scale in half notes as Whalum brought the crowd in on vocals. It was one of those classic crowd-pleasers smooth artists do often, but with a rare authenticity to the mood for the players as well as they exchanged a group hug at the end.

"One of things you realize as a traveling musician is no man is an island," Whalum said. "There's no such thing as a solo artist...I talk and pray with Keith on the phone. I've known Dean Brown for 25 years. It's not just what you see up here. There's a lot of love behind the scenes."

Bassist and cruise host Marcus Miller joined and they launched into "Christ Is All," the group now large enough to be the kind of smooth ensemble I usually associate with Whalum. His extended solo was the cushioning comfort he's good at, a savory way of making instrumental gospel appealing to a wide audience.

But if I was worried about the show settling into a lull, this was a quick stop in the garden of Eden. The next call was for saxophonist James Carter ("I just knocked on his door. We'll see if he wakes up," Whalum said) for a strutting arrangement of "Walk With Me."

"I want Jesus to walk with me, but apparently Jesus can walk in 5/4 time," Whalum said.

Carter walked on as Whalum's solo ended, showing no signs of drowsiness as he dashed immediately into a caffeinated barrage with the notes level and linked, aside from the minefield of high-end jumps. Whalum joined in for a loose collaborative before taking it down again at the end. (Personal from my notes: "right now this guy (Carter) has to be this trip's discovery of a well-known person I didn't know nearly well enough").

Nearing the end, Whalum turned the stage over to Miller, who again started things on a one-to-one personal level by paying tribute to his father, Myles, an African Orthodox minister who went to music school planning to be a musician until the birth of his kids.


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