Smooth Jazz Cruise 2009

| May 18, 2009

Music cruises are a once-in-a-lifetime experience, and jazz cruises are among the most successful and popular of all.

When I got my documents for the Smooth Jazz Cruise aboard Holland America's Westerdam in January 2009, I was excited -- but I wasn't prepared. Being prepared would have meant I knew what most other attendees already knew: that this is one of the classiest and most memorable cruises one can ever experience.

How did the majority of guests already know what I did not? These jazz cruises are so successful that more than 80 percent of the attendees each year are repeat "Smooth Jazz" cruisers. The same producer, JazzCruisesLLC, has been organizing jazz cruises each year since 2000.

These cruises are so popular that the organizers scheduled four of them last year alone, each with a different jazz theme -- the Smooth Jazz Cruise, the "straight-ahead" Jazz Cruise, the Playboy Jazz Cruise and the Dave Koz Cruise. The Smooth Jazz Cruise that we selected was the sixth year for the same theme. The straight-ahead jazz theme cruise in November 2009 will be the ninth annual one.

As I have written before, music and cruising go together extremely well. When you combine cruising and music concerts, it seems that one plus one equals three. Not only do you get to experience two of your favorite things at the same time, but being at sea with no distractions -- and unbridled access to the performers and musicians -- gets you completely immersed in the experience.

Our 2009 Smooth Jazz Cruise, hosted by former Phoenix Suns player but now bassist extraordinare Wayman Tisdale, was no exception. It was far better than I expected, and I already knew that music cruises are outstanding. It was unforgettable for a number of reasons -- not only for the fantastic music.

Smooth Jazz Cruise 2009 We boarded the Holland America Westerdam on January 18, 2009 and instantly knew we were into something good. First of all, we saw people greeting each other like old friends everywhere we went. These people were all smiles -- unlike on a normal cruise, where people boarding appear exhausted and eager to settle in.

Most guests were African American, which we knew would make this cruise extra special, especially since the inauguration of Barack Obama would take place during the voyage. But the real uniting factor for all the guests was their level of musical sophistication and appreciation for talent.

As soon as we got in our cabin, we began to study the schedule. As a musician myself, I expected to see very talented musicians playing live. My wife is also a music lover, and she had worked with Wayman Tisdale professionally when she was previously affiliated with the Phoenix Suns Athletic Club.

So we were excited and happy to be there, even though neither one of us is an ardent fan of the smooth jazz genre. Smooth Jazz is often criticized by true jazz followers as something akin to "dental office music." It generally features all instrumental prearranged tunes with memorable melodic hooks, like a pop song you can hum. Kenny G is perhaps the most well known smooth jazz musician (although he was not on this cruise).

We didn't recognize more than a couple of the names on the schedule -- Wayman and Chaka Khan. But we could tell that some of these artists were very well known by the followers of this sound, so we prepared for our education.

The TV set was already playing a concert from the previous year's Smooth Jazz cruise, featuring a guitar player who was also on our cruise, Jeff Golub. A guitar player myself, I realized from the tape that this smooth jazz cruise would feature plenty of great improvisational musicians striving to show their peers how much they progressed in the last year.

I was not expecting this level of musical freedom from a smooth jazz cruise. Standard jazz music is rarely as pre-arranged and melodic as smooth jazz. Instead, standard jazz is very improvisational, and the excitement comes from the back-and-forth interaction between multiple instruments playing off of one another rather than a single, repeating and memorable melody.

Bottom line: When you get the dozens of qualified jazz musicians we had on this ship together, you can't hold them back. Yes, we were going to hear some smooth jazz "hits" with melodies many audience members already knew. But we were also going to hear "real" jazz, where the players show off their best chops to surprise and delight the audience with the agility and mastery of their instruments.

We met our tablemates that night -- two African American ladies traveling together without their husbands and a mixed race couple from San Diego. He was a handsome cross between Barack Obama and Michael Jordan; she was a blonde vegetarian wisp whose bust was only surpassed by her quick wit.

After dinner we saw our first show. Saxophonist Everette Harp was a head fake -- exactly what I expected from a smooth jazz artist -- with plenty of sweet lingering notes and a minimum of improvisation. When the second artist, guitarist Peter White, walked out looking look like an unhip, shorter version of an aging Buddy Holly, my heart sank. He played something one might hear from an eighth grader riffing in a Guitar Center. It was clunky and fumbly, like a white guy badly imitating a self-taught, heroin-addicted delta blues guitarist.

Little did I know, he was doing this intentionally. I still don't know if he was poking fun at the too-straight-ahead smoothness of Harp, or if that was just part of the act. But this short white geek stopped mid-phrase, swung around as the lights came up, and there was his band. He immediately broke into one of the coolest jazz freedom songs I have ever heard, with his fingers flying over the frets like Django Rienhardt (if he had all his fingers). It was the most amazing transition I have ever seen onstage.

From that point on, each show and each night got better and better. Each show brought us a combination of individual displays of musical dexterity as well as uncanny interactive improvisation that was so clever it sometimes sounded rehearsed.

All the musicians we saw were exceptional, including Everette, who came back with other artists and showed he could do much more than his easy-listening smooth jazz standards. Each night's show started out with two artists scheduled, but by the end of the night there were often 20 or more on stage. Many of them had stories about playing with bands like the Rolling Stones or Miles Davis. They all had talent and experience, and inevitably we all forgot this was even called a "smooth jazz" cruise.

Continue Article >> Smooth Jazz Cruise (Cont.) (Part 2)

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