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The 11th Annual Jazz Cruise: January 29-February 5, 2012

The 11th Annual Jazz Cruise: January 29-February 5, 2012
Larry Taylor By

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Tributes to saxophonist Benny Golson and pianist Oscar Peterson highlighted the 11th annual Jazz Cruise, January 29 to February 5, 2012. As well, stellar performances were turned in by an assemblage of over 80 musicians, onboard for the Holland America cruise of the Caribbean. The spacious Westerdam ship was christened in 2004 and is one of HAL's largest, with a capacity of 1,848; this year the ship was sold out for the cruise.
The ship decor is exceptional—from the colorful glass floral bouquet that fills the ceiling of Vista Dining Room to the glass ship sculpture that dominates the Atrium, a revolving piece that catches the eye from each level of the vessel.
While dining in the Pinnacle (the upscale alternative dining room), just off the Atrium, diners can admire a collection of lighted art panels that also provide room separation. This restaurant offered great steaks and chops, as well as troll-caught salmon, among other delectable selections. Appetizers include a jumbo shrimp cocktail and many salads, such as baby arugula with smoked bacon and chopped egg, and a tower of vine ripened beefsteak tomato with purple onion. Desserts were plentiful and delicious. Passengers paid a slight extra charge to eat here but it was worth it.
The Vista Dining Room, the ship's main restaurant offers additional lighter selections , in addition to the steak, chicken and baked potato that are always on the menu, as well as outstanding seafood dishes and international cuisine.

During the week, there were jazz events in the morning and evening, with as many as two to three shows going at one time. By careful choosing, fans could catch their favorites—more than once, if desired. Concerts took place in the spacious Vista Lounge, the smaller Queen's Lounge and the intimate Ocean Lounge and Crow's Nest. Bill Charlap's Trio, Ann Hampton Callaway's Quartet and two crack bands put together for the sailing—the 17-piece Anita's All Stars and small ensembles of rotating jazz stars who played in 12 different configurations—were amongst the standouts during the seven-day cruise.

Mornings and afternoons, there were jazz films shown, Q & A sessions with musicians and roundtable discussions. Of course, cruising is for relaxing, and, there was plenty of that onboard and on beaches during three port stops.

Anita's All Star Band

Most evenings Anita's All Star Big Band (named for Jazz Cruise founder Anita Berry) was featured during shows in the Vista Lounge, under the direction of trombonist John Fedchock.

It was a sharp ensemble and didn't have the under-rehearsed sound of bands brought together for special events. There were precision arrangements, including a whirling dervish version of a "Limehouse Blues" that, featuring Pete Christlieb, set a high standard for the rest of the event.

Monday, January 30, the band was joined by guitarist/vocalist John Pizzarelli, who brought his rhythm section, relaxed swinging style and witty vocals to the party. He fronted particularly effective arrangements, borrowing from the Count Basie book, including an ingeniously combined "Lil' Darlin' " and "Our Love Is Here to Stay"—first played separately, and then merged. The popular Pizzarelli excelled in several venues during the cruise, with his regular quartet of pianist Larry Fuller, bassist/brother Martin Pizzarelli, and drummer Anthony Tedesco.

John Pizzarelli

That same night Carmen Bradford also sang with the band. Though, bothered with laryngitis, she delivered a lusty version of "No Easy Way to Say Goodbye," a song given heft by powerful tenor solos from Christlieb and Don Braden—two stalwart contributors to the whole week.

The Benny Golson and Oscar Peterson Tributes

Golson's much-deserved tribute was hosted Tuesday by saxophonist Jeff Clayton in the Vista Lounge. A procession of musicians played the celebrated tenor saxophonist's familiar compositions, including "Along Came Betty," "Whisper Not" and "Stablemates." If the entire audience didn't know the tunes by name, after a few bars, it soon became clear the majority knew the melodies; Golson is certainly one of the predominate jazz composers of his time.

Highlights in the set were trumpeter Terell Stafford's solo on "I Remember Clifford," and, once more, passionate contributions from Braden and Christlieb on "Whisper Not," accompanied by the peerless pianist Gerald Clayton (son of bassist John; nephew of Jeff).

In the finale, all the assembled sax players picked up their horns and had a cutting session on "Blues March," with the 83-year-old Golson and his wife beaming from the front row. At the finish they accepted a commemoration gift from Jeff Clayton.

Oscar Peterson's tribute came later in the week, also in Vista Lounge. Host/pianist Mike LeDonne told of his personal relationship to the late pianist/composer, and brought in virtually every pianist on the ship to pay respects with a tune.

Jeff Hamilton Trio

Standing out once more, the young Clayton captured the honoree's essence as he played the first part of Peterson's "Canadiana Suite." In turn, pianist Larry Fuller did majestic justice to Peterson's "Hymn to Freedom,"while young Italian pianist Rosanno Sportielo sparkled in his Petersonesque rapid-fire treatment of "Lester Leaps In."

Drummer Jeff Hamilton's trio—pianist (Tamir Hendelman and bassist Christoph Luty—crowned the evening. Hamilton played with Peterson in the nineties, and his trio delivered Peterson's breadth, scope and swinging soul in their performance of the second and third parts of "Canadiana Suite." Hendelman, in particular, inspired the crowd with his dazzling solo on the "Place St. Mari" section.

Kurt Elling Scales the Heights

After Sunday's Sail Away party, the cruise started on a high note with Kurt Elling in Vista Lounge. Reaching a new level of creativity, the singer has never sounded better. He began with "Stardust" that made this Hoagy Carmichael classic sound fresh and new. He mingled verse, introduction and bridge, hitting soaring high notes and then sweeping to the bottom of the scale—like a great pianist improvising upon and then revealing the substance of a song.

Elling had outstanding accompaniment from pianist Laurence Hobgood, bassist Clark Sommers and drummer Ulysses Owens, Jr.. Guitarist John McLean came on later and stole his portion of the show, as the group went into Bruno Mardan's "In Summer," which featured a plaintive Spanish Saeta-style solo by McLean on his Fender solid body guitar. Elling continued on this elevated plane, putting a Dexter Gordon tenor solo on "Body and Soul" into vocalese. It was similar to King Pleasure's "Moody's Mood for Love," a take on a Coleman Hawkins' solo on "I'm in the Mood for Love."

Elling also performed in the Ocean Bar. His voice cascaded down the scales like a waterfall on "All Or Nothing at All" while, to indicate his eclecticism, he sang a Brahms lieder in German about a lover drowning in tears. His fervent improvising on this classic became like a complex John Coltrane solo, with clarinetist Anat Cohen accompanying him with equal intensity. To fully display his virtuosity, Elling returned in the final night's show in the Vista Lounge with the big band, sharing the bill with Anne Hampton-Callaway. He bowed to Frank Sinatra with "I Only Have Eyes For You," and cranked up the band with a solid "More Than You Know."

Hampton-Callaway and Charlap

The Crow's Nest—where the versatile Broadway/cabaret/jazz star performed in the afternoon of January 30—was almost too small to contain Hampton-Callaway's big voice and even bigger personality. Blending jazz and traditional pop, her satisfying show was put together with the immeasurable help of pianist Ted Rosenthal.

A diva in the best sense, she brought the shouting crowd to its feet in a program featuring her no-holds-barred versions of "All of Me" and "Blue Moon." A gifted improviser, midway in the set, she took words and phrases from the audience and created songs on the spot. Truly a fan favorite of the cruise, it was necessary to weave through the almost impassable hallway opposite the venue, with people packed into every conceivable area to see Hampton-Callaway.

Charlap brought the trio that most critics agree is one of the best groups on the road—bassist Peter Washington and drummer Kenny Washington. From a stately version of Thad Jones' "Little Rascal on a Rock" to the lickety-split sprint through "My Shining Hour," Charlap's Queens Lounge set on January 30 was riveting.

The next afternoon in the Ocean Bar, Charlap was even more impressive. His enthralling "Slow Boat to China," from the forties, started as a slow sail on a placid bay and then turned into a speedboat ride, few pianists as capable of such blinding speed. Later in the cruise he played a dual piano show with his wife, pianist Renee Rosnes, who also was onboard performing with all-star groups.

Cruising on the Westerdam

Mid-cruise, February 1 and 2, were shore days in Aruba and Curacao. Many stayed onboard, reading and kicking back. And there was always some event, including a morning jazz movie and video presentations. There were also passenger jam sessions every day.

A big plus for these cruises is that fans get a chance to socialize with the musicians, meeting them in the halls and elevators, around the pool on the Lido deck and in the dining rooms. Amongst the many encounters was a chance to talk to John Pizzarelli about his father, jazz guitar veteran Bucky Pizzarelli, who was unable to be on the cruise for medical reasons. Pianist/vocalist Freddy Cole was also onboard with his group—and his wife, Margaret. At 80, he still has a full schedule on the road, though his wife doesn't enjoy the road at all, preferring to stay at home in Atlanta. New Yorker Braden spoke of his university teaching job in Holland, which he balances with gigs around New York. As with most musicians who go abroad, he said he gets great response from Dutch fans when he makes club appearances.

Movie Music Celebrated

A Tribute to Jazz and Movies was also on the program in the Vista Lounge. Reed player Ken Peplowski hosted the program in his usual witty manner, escorting patrons through a variety of films, using projections on side screens, while Anita's All Stars played songs from the movies. That night the soloists were trombonist Wycliffe Gordon, tenor saxophonist Ricky Woodard , and vocalist Nikki Harris. Songs spotlighted included an intricate, unusual treatment of the theme from Laura (1944) along with Duke Ellington's theme from 1959's Anatomy of A Murder, and, most compelling, Charlie Parker's "Ornithology," from Clint Eastwood's Bird (1988). An impressive finale, featured five flutists—Jerry Dodgion, Kirk Whalum, Dick Oatts, Braden and Jeff Clayton—lined up across the stage, playing Golson's big hit "Killer Joe," used in Terminal (2004); it was a mighty sound.

A Mancini Movie Songbook show was celebrated with Peplowki and cruise musical director and pianist Shelly Berg. They took the audience through Mancini's film and television archive, including a a mesmerizing duet on "Dreamsville," from 1958's Peter Gunn.

Jazz, Jazz Everywhere—from Stern to Bow

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