The Jazz Cruise: Beyond the Sea

Community, camaraderie and a non-stop program of top-flight jazz

The 2013 Jazz Cruise-the most recent edition of the annual event launched in 1999 by Anita Berry and her son, Michael Lazaroff-featured live jazz from noon into the wee hours, Jan. 26 – Feb. 2. Basically a floating festival with a wide range of mainstream and acoustic jazz, it showcased more than 100 musicians, each performing at least four different times. More than 1,800 attendees caught artists as young as rising-star pianist Emmet Cohen and as old as legendary drummer Roy Haynes. And you didn’t even have to find a place to park.

This year’s lineup was stellar and included Haynes and his Fountain of Youth Band, the Gary Burton New Quartet, the Eddie Palmieri/Brian Lynch Quartet, Gerald Clayton, the New York Voices, Kurt Elling and his quartet, the Karrin Allyson Trio, Joey DeFrancesco, Ann Hampton Callaway and many others. In addition to the performances by the 15 working bands onboard, the cruise featured about two dozen “all-stars” who played together in various configurations. The complete list is too long to provide here, but it included Randy Brecker, Anat Cohen, Terell Stafford, Ken Peplowski, Gary Smulyan, Wycliffe Gordon and John Fedchock.

One of the rewards of the cruise setting is the opportunity to see an act perform a series of shows in different venues over the course of a week. Last year I focused on the groups of Elling and John Pizzarelli. This year I homed in on vibraphonist Burton’s New Quartet and the Palmieri-Lynch Quartet. Burton’s group, which made its recorded ensemble debut in 2011 on his album Common Ground, features guitarist Julian Lage, bassist Scott Colley and drummer Antonio Sanchez. Watching them rehearse before their first performance, I could see and hear the group’s unique sense of dynamics-a natural sonic balance that proves intensity doesn’t necessarily mean excessive volume. Performing material from throughout Burton’s career, the band seemed to breathe together.

In contrast, the high-octane quartet co-led by pianist Palmieri and trumpeter Lynch was all fiery rhythms and explosive solos, propelled by a rhythm section of bassist Boris Kozlov and drummer Dafnis Prieto. Palmieri has a long and deep musical relationship with trumpeter Lynch, but in this quartet you could also see the pianist lock in with Prieto, who used his kit to evoke a complete Cuban percussion section. The quartet format also showcased Palmieri’s strong affinity for the powerful left-hand chording of McCoy Tyner.

For the musicians, the cruise offers an annual opportunity to hang for seven consecutive days, and the players took every opportunity to commune, whether sitting at the bar or sitting in on each other’s gigs. Anat Cohen seemed to be everywhere, guesting on clarinet and saxophone with Elling’s quartet and other bands. And nearly every night, the Ocean Bar was transformed-by a faux brick background and neon sign-into Freddy’s Club, hosted by Freddy Cole and his trio. The suave, sophisticated singer-pianist was the consummate host, greeting fans and musicians like old friends-though given how many years he’s been doing the cruise, many may fit that description. Cole’s nearly endless songbook and languid delivery were a source of delight and reverence, particularly for all of the vocalists who congregated each night to absorb Cole’s wisdom.

The performances were augmented by a series of interview sessions moderated by longtime jazz radio host Bobby Jackson. Promoter and producer Todd Barkan served as official cruise archivist, hosting screenings of vintage jazz videos, introducing artists and spreading his own unique brand of hipster bonhomie. JazzTimes was present as well, filming interviews for its website and YouTube channel.

Did I mention the shore excursions at the three stops? No, probably not, because many people didn’t even bother to get off the ship, not out of any xenophobia, but because they didn’t want to miss that set by Houston Person in the Crow’s Nest at 2 p.m. For the record, this year’s cruise made stops in St. Thomas, St. Barths and Nassau, and some folks did go ashore for swimming, snorkeling, scuba or shopping, refueling for another nightly marathon of music. Next year’s cruise is scheduled for Jan. 26 – Feb. 2.