The Independent Ear

Allan Harris mines the Eddie Jefferson legacy

Pittsburgh’s own soulful baritone, Allan Harris, has led a rich and varied career. No stranger to accepting vocal challenges, Allan has embarked on all manner of projects through the throughly productive artistic partnership he has established with his wife and manager Pat Harris – ranging from numerous iterations of the Great American Songbook (including putting a jazz flavor on the R&B chapters in that endless book), to his deep exploration of the still little-known history of the Black Cowboy in America through his Cross That River project, which has morphed from a recording to a stage production. For his latest challenge Allan has just released a tribute to the late, great jazz vocalese pioneer Eddie Jefferson. On Tuesday, June 12th he will play that project at the DC JazzFest on an evening at the Hamilton in downtown DC (for complete DC JazzFest information visit: www.dcjazzfest.org. Clearly some questions were in order for the intrepid Allan Harris.

Given your many projects, notably including your black cowboy saga “Cross That River,” which has morphed from recording project to stage play, what led to your deciding to fete the legacy of Eddie Jefferson?

Having studied and performed the music of a myriad of America’s well known crooners and stylists from Bing Crosby, Nat Cole, Billy Eckstine,Tony Bennett, Frank Sinatra even Brooke Benton and Arthur Prysock, I felt that I had more than mined the American Songbook. Plus, now that I am entering a more seasoned stage of my career as a story teller, I felt like my growth and vocal prowess was reaching a plateau bordering on stagnation. In other words to use the old adage, ‘been there done that!’ Delving into the Eddie Jefferson Songbook added an exciting new dimension to my lyrical and melodic knowledge as a performing vocalist, especially in the arena of Jazz Vocalese.


Eddie Jefferson recording studio scene: l to r Ralph Moore, Allan & Pat Harris, Richie Cole, producer Brian Bacchus, Eric Reed

What is your sense of the art of vocalese, and is there some sense that Eddie Jefferson has never really gotten his due for that genre?

To pair one’s prose and poetry to those who have put their stamp on some of the greatest solo’s in the jazz cannon takes a lyricist who not only understands and feels what the soloist is saying, but also knows how to marry their words to the story without losing the composer’s vision of the tune. Eddie Jefferson, as I now have come to understand, was a genius in staying true to the vision of these giants of Jazz. Unfortunately I allowed my prejudice of his not-so-smooth sounding vocals over-shadow his unbelievably hip and precise stories. Eddie Jefferson was an unsung man of letters.

Just curious, but the song that really put Eddie Jefferson on the map was “Moody’s Mood For Love,” his vocalization of James Moody’s instrumental approach to the standard “I’m in the Mood for Love,” a tune that for a time was incorrectly credited to King Pleasure, who actually stole the piece from Eddie. Given that touchstone in Eddie’s career, what made you determine not to address “Moody’s Mood” on this record?

Having performed his landmark tune Moody’s Mood For Love often enough to deliver it while standing on my head, I felt I had no need to revisit it again since I had included it on my last recording, Nobody’s Gonna Love You Better. I wanted to stretch my creative membrane and continue to grow as an artist which is why I ventured into the camp of Eddie Jefferson.

Allan Harris and Brian Bacchus in the studio with Eric Reed and Willie Jones 111

How did you and producer Brian Bacchus go about selecting the material for “The Genius of Eddie Jefferson”?

I had such an advantage in choosing the songs for this project. First off my producer Brian Bacchus is a huge Eddie Jefferson fan and choosing pianist Eric Reed to arrange and play on the session was a no-brainer because we had performed a concert of Jefferson’s music years ago in the Appel Room at Jazz at Lincoln Center. Brian, Eric and I had several long and passionate discussions on Skype about choosing the songs…everyone had their favorites. The songs that ended up on the recording were all songs that we felt strongly about doing. The last one, Waltz For A Rainy Bebop Evening was one that Brian really wanted me to do. This tune was composed by Eddie Jefferson’s long standing sax player and friend Richie Cole. It was added during the last moments of the session, and Eric Reed brilliantly put an impromptu arrangement on it and it has now become one of my favorites on the project. I have worked with Brian on my last two projects, Black Bar Jukebox and Nobody’s Gonna Love You Better, so we have a groove in the studio which helped me ease my way into the swinging yet intricate book of Eddie Jefferson.

Talk about the musicians you worked with to realize this Eddie Jefferson project and why you felt they were apropos for this record.

I knew that the only pianist I wanted to do this project with was Eric Reed. We recorded Love Came, the Songs of Strayhorn together years ago and we’ve been long-time friends, so I knew he had a passion for Eddie Jefferson’s music. I asked him to choose the rhythm section that he wanted to work with and he brought in Willie Jones, III who I have long wanted to sing with and a bassist I didn’t know named George DeLancey who’s groove reminded me of Ray Brown, who I recorded with on my first album, It’s A Wonderful World. Eric also did the arrangements and we all agreed we needed Richie Cole on alto and Ralph Moore on tenor. Ralph has recorded with everyone from Oscar Peterson to Freddie Hubbard and he brought his own flavor to some of the tunes.

What can folks expect when you bring the project to the Hamilton Live in June for your first DC JazzFest appearance?

When I come to the Hamilton as part of the DC Jazz Festival this June, I intend to come in swinging hard with the help of pianist Orrin Evans, drummer Shirazette Tinnin, and bassist Nimrod Speaks. Of course I will not be straying too far from those landmark sounds and grooves that fans of Eddie Jefferson have come to know and love. But bear in mind even though the tunes will stay true to the flavor that Eddie has wonderfully put his stamp on, I will always let my audience see that there still is Allan Harris under this wonderful blanket of creative swing that the genius, Eddie Jefferson, laid down for us to listen, groove and swing to!

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JJA announces 2018 Jazz Hero recipients

The Jazz Journalists Association, in advance of its annual June awards program has announced the recipients of its 20th annual Jazz Heroes award. The significance of this award must not be overlooked on the overall canvas of the JJA’s awards to jazz practitioners, producers and writers. JJA Jazz Heroes are often the catalysts of a particular movement or community entity, or an actual jazz practitioner who has given selflessly of him or herself to the uplift of jazz in their community, or in some cases they are the outright non-performing backbones of their given home jazz communities. With that in mind, in addition to introducing you to this year’s Jazz Heroes we asked JJA president and driving force Howard Mandel to speak to the absolute necessity of these Jazz Hero citations. But first, here’s a look at this year’s Jazz Heroes recipients.


1. Atlanta: Dr. Dwight Andrews
2. Baltimore: Lea Gilmore
3. Chicago: Margaret Murphy-Webb
4. Detroit: Jim Gallert and Lars Bjorn
5. Denver: Charleszine “Terry” Nelson
6. Hartford: Maurice Robertson
7. Miami: Robert D. Bielecki
8. Minneapolis-St.Paul: Larry Englund
9. New Orleans: Ellis Marsalis Jr.
10. New York City: Bruce Lee Gallanter
11. Philadelphia: Rhenda Fearrington
12. Tucson: Pete Swan
13. Pittsburgh: Roger Humphries
14. Portland OR: Marcia K. Hocker
15. San Diego: Daniel Atkinson
16. Seattle: Karen Caropepe
17. SF Bay Area: Angela Wellman
18. St. Louis: Jim Widner
19. Tallahassee FL: Therese & Christopher Seepersaud
20. Washington D.C.: Larry Appelbaum

When we first initiated Awards for “activists, advocates, altruists, aiders and abettors of jazz” the JJA’s idea was that there were a lot of under-appreciated people who support jazz in ways that are neither necessarily music-making nor journalism. At that time the Jazz Foundation had recently been organized and it seemed clear that Dr. Billy Taylor and Herb Stouffer had done something significant and selfless in order to try to provide some health care and other safety net benefits to musicians who needed them. The establishment by Dr. Frank Forte (also a guitarist) of the Dizzy Gillespie Cancer Center was really the impetus — the JJA felt that Center should be acknowledged, and attention of the public directed to the health care issues affecting even well-known jazz stars.

The other underlying goal of the Jazz Heroes initiative has been to provide local communities with a news peg in order to gain local coverage by mainstream publications and media platforms during Jazz Appreciation Month. The Smithsonian’s JAM program did not have activities extending to communities across the US beyond offering an online registry of April jazz activities to whoever wanted to post them. International Jazz Day also did not provide actions for local jazz communities to take. The JJA (it was our web administrator’s idea) set up JazzApril, trying to connect JAM and IJD to US localities with a broad range of inexpensive, DIY media-activation strategies. These strategies are still posted for anyone to see and use at http://www.jazzapril.com/ although the JJA has suspended promoting JazzApril, since the nomenclature seemed to confuse groups trying to celebrate JAM and IJD, and neither the Smithsonian nor the Monk Institute reciprocated the JJA’s efforts.

We still think local jazz community activists can get local newspaper, radio and sometimes tv coverage highlighting the “human interest stories” of community members (neighbors) who devote themselves to jazz. The longterm goal of the JJA as well as all other jazz-connected entities is to grow the jazz audience. We can only do that if we put “jazz” in front of people who aren’t already IN that audience. Human interest stories — profiles of local individuals – may attract interest where “jazz” may not. The JJA is eager to help local jazz fans learn how to create situations OTHER THAN MUSIC PERFORMANCES that might gain coverage, and to learn how to connect with mainstream journalists or use media themselves to promote their programs.

Nominations for Jazz Heroes are requested from JJA members and a few unaffiliated collaborators every January and February, and are mulled over by the JJA board and various committee members. Nominators must be able and willing to follow through on what it takes to make these Awards happen: providing bios that speak to the nominee’s “heroism,” photos, contact numbers and organizing presentations, if possible at free events, if possible getting official proclamations honoring the Heroes from local politicians. Nominees who are named “Heroes” in a given year are kept on file for later consideration. With rare exceptions, we don’t give posthumous Awards or give Awards to organizations. We look for people who our presenters are excited about, and we are intent on showing that Jazz Heroes represent all demographic categories of Americans. I’m very proud of the Heroes we’ve recognized and celebrated since 2001.

For more on the Jazz Journalists Association and its Jazz Heroes awards, please visit here:
http://www.jjajazzawards.org/p/2018-jazz-heroes.html

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The Enterprising Musician Pt. 2

The first installment of this occasional series spotlighting musicians who truly know what time it is, who recognize the necessity for a certain level of business expertise on the part of today’s striving musician, we heard from saxophonist-composer Rudresh Muhanthappa. When I posted our chat with Rudresh I heard from DC-area saxophonist Jeff Antoniuk, who has a very discriminating take on the need for business savvy on the part of today’s successful musician. And with that a few questions were in order for Jeff.


When a musician says to you that they don’t do business, they do music – implying that there just isn’t time or inclination on their part to thoroughly consider the business side of their pursuits with the same energy devoted to playing music, how would you respond?

I just wonder what it is that they do for a living, and sincerely hope that they are living a rich and comfortable life. The implication is that either their music already is paying for their great life, in which case there is no issue to be solved. Their music is creating all the money they need to live the life they want on planet earth. Or, perhaps they have another actual career, and music is their “passion on the side.” Charles Ives, the renowned classical composer and organist did this very successfully. He was a highly successful businessman, which allowed him to create fantastic music “after hours.” The music didn’t have to fund his life. Another great scenario.

The last scenario is that I am talking to a full time musician who doesn’t understand that they are in a business, and that they operate a business, with themselves as the product. I was definitely this person for many years myself, so I have great sympathy and an open heart for this person. I would love to help them understand that art and commerce are not opposites, that they can coexist. SHOULD coexist. I’d love to help them understand that the romantic notions of the constantly struggling jazz musician, or the starving, suffering artist are as ridiculous as having to shoot heroin to play like Charlie Parker. There’s nothing romantic about no heat, no food and no girlfriend.

What ultimately is the successful musician’s responsibility where the business of music is concerned?

I think that there are two categories to be considered and balanced. Number one is “YOU, the musician, are responsible for getting your music, your vision, out there.” It’s up to you, so take on this responsibility. It’s not on the club owner or the magazine publisher or the blogger or anyone else. It is your responsibility to step up or shut up. That said, stepping up is hard. Get help. There are so many resources and so much information and so much support. “Step Up” doesn’t mean you have to do it alone. Learn to ask for help.

Number two is “what is your definition of success?” It’s your responsibility to figure that out, and sooner is better than later. Is success getting your recording some airplay in the Jazz Top 50? A review in Downbeat? Doing a four week tour? Earning $250,000 from music this year? It’s YOUR responsibility, the business owner/musician, to decide what your goals are. Think hard though. The airplay and the reviews and the tour have very little to do with paying your rent, and earning a ton of money may not fulfill you at the end of the day. You may need to define your success in a number of different ways.

What would you say are the most critical business elements that musicians must be concerned with?

When I help professional jazz musicians develop their own businesses through www.JazzTeacherTraining.com, we spend much of the first portion of the training discovering our personal WHY. Not “what” and “how” (which are certainly important), but WHY. WHY are we teaching or playing or creating art? WHY would an audience or student or listener commit to us? WHY do we play or teach the way we do, WHY this way but not that way? And WHY should I, as an audience member, care about your art?

When we understand more about our personal WHY’s, and then the WHY’s of our business, we begin to stand for something. We are different than everyone else (which is a good thing, by the way). We have a point of view, we draw a line in the sand, and tell the world “I am THIS, and here is WHY. If you see the world like I do, you are going to LOVE my art.”

When we know WHY, now we have the beginnings of a business. We can begin delivering art that stands for something, and might just stand out. Picasso and Miles Davis stood out. Jonathan Ive and E.E. Cummings stood out. David Byrne and I.M. Pei stand out. They understood their WHY, and for that, they were invited to do their art for the world.

What business of music recommendations would you make to aspiring young musicians?

Ask for help. Music and art is such an individual, isolated pursuit so much of the time. We spend thousands of hours in the practice room, with headphones on. Music is a team sport, but 95% of our time is truly spent alone. Plus, many of us are quite introverted, so the idea of asking for help is very vulnerable, and scary as hell.

Just begin by talking about music and business with people you know and run into, but most especially talk with non-musicians. If you want to know about the Coltrane harmonic matrix, probably don’t ask the Chief Marketing Officer of an IT company. And, if you want to know about marketing or developing a brand, probably don’t ask your musician friends! There is so much help out there if you just open your mind and ask.

What have been some of your more successful business-of-music pursuits, and subsequent recommendations for your fellow musicians?

www.JazzBandMasterclass.com was where “taking business seriously” started for me as a musician and teacher about 15 years ago. The JBM business is about coaching adult amateur and semi-pro musicians in the DC/MD/VA area, and giving them a place to play, learn, and be heard. It has become the core of my business, and JBM is very successful by any business metric one could apply. That said, I also love the work and am consistently fed by it, which is also a success. Lastly, I am in the business of changing lives and fulfilling dreams, so I go to bed with a big smile on my face most nights. Success.

www.MarylandSummerJazz.com grew out of Jazz Band Masterclass. It is a four-day summer camp for adult musicians, who travel from around North America and the world to attend. JBM is regional, and MSJ is national. It’s the same business, scaled differently. My WHY is the same.

Digging Deeper Jazz Videos (https://www.youtube.com/c/JeffAntoniukEducator) is a weekly series of jazz videos, again for adult musicians and semi-pros. The videos are now viewed over 1200 time a day and growing quickly from there. Again, it’s the same business, same WHY, scaled differently. JBM is regional, MSJ is national, Digging Deeper is global.

www.JazzTeacherTraining.com is the part of my business geared towards helping jazz professionals around the world develop their own version of what I do, but for themselves. Not a franchise, this is training to help jazz pros build THEIR OWN business, learn their WHY, and begin the fulfilling and lucrative work of helping adult amateurs achieve their dreams. I’ve worked with great pros in New York, Philly, Sarasota, Bethesda, Baltimore, Portland, Dallas and Spokane over the past year or two. New Jersey, Pittsburgh, Houston, Seattle, Atlanta and LA are in the talking stages.

My Recommendations? Do the hard work of discovering what you stand for, and why. I am still a serious player, composer and bandleader, and I commit a lot of energy to it all every day. But that said, the WHY of my business is none of those things. I understand that I am truly put on earth to help adult musicians live their dreams, to understand that jazz is for them too. I help adult amateurs and semi-pros live the dream they had as a younger person, to play this music. I compose and record and gig a lot, but those are not the WHY of my business.

Your marching orders are to figure out what you stand for in your playing, writing, and/or teaching, and commit to it. Ask for help. Start somewhere, and don’t get knocked off your center. When it’s time to expand (Jazz Band Masterclass to Maryland Summer Jazz, or Digging Deeper Videos to Jazz Teacher Training), remember your core values. Remember who you are and what you stand for. Everything you do should support your WHY, and be strongly informed by it. From this point of departure, you’ll build a solid business that speaks to a true audience that opts in to what you offer. You won’t be begging for people to pay attention. You’ll have earned the right to have their attention.

Finally, you don’t need millions of people. You aren’t Katy Perry. She can’t exist without millions of fans – that is a nature of her business. But, if you speak strongly and consistently to tens of thousands, even to thousands, you have a strong business in the arts. Focus.

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The Enterprising Musician pt 1


RUDRESH MAHANTHAPPA’S BUSINESS LOGO
Pursuing a career in jazz performance is a true labor of love. From the arduous isolation of the practice routine, to the additional study required to achieve a level of excellence – not to mention those many who are pursuing that performing career after devoting countless hours of study and achieving a related degree – becoming a professional musician is a study in perseverance. Then on top of the pursuit of one’s instrumental or vocal craft there are the myriad business considerations; Lord knows most jazz musicians do not have the financial wherewithal to simply engage qualified professionals to address their business responsibilities at their beck & call.

In the face of the challenges of becoming and sustaining the career of a professional jazz musician, I greatly admire those enterprising musicians who have taken it upon themselves to develop innovative ways to enhance their career efforts. I’m always on the lookout for the self-starters out there who see the big picture beyond their instrument/voice, gigs and recordings. So consider this the first in what will hopefully be an ongoing series of profiles of the various business practices being successfully employed by jazz musicians, practices that come from a variety of perspectives.

In a recent interview saxophonist-composer-educator Rudresh Mahanthappa spoke about merchandising concerns, issues which are an ongoing exploration of his. Besides his incredible facility on the alto saxophone, his innovative writing, and his pursuit of cross-discipline partners and projects, Rudresh is also the Director of Jazz at Princeton University, which provides him a platform to interact with student musicians on their performance and their business practices. Some of Rudresh’s remarks on various business practices in that interview prompted some questions.

The Independent Ear is looking for particularly enterprising musicians whose efforts have enhanced their performing career opportunities. Please send suggestions and contact info.


Rock and pop musicians have been concerned and in many cases very sophisticated about their merchandising options for many years. Is it your sense that jazz musicians and bands have been missing the boat in this
regard?

Yes. I think so. There’s a lot of fun things we can do merch-wise that still feels good beyond t-shirts.

What have you done to step up your personal merchandising profile?

First we made a beautiful double LP package. We also made socks and shot glasses. Manufacturing the two latter has not been easy but we now have them in stock and they aren’t taking over my house.

What¹s your sense of the ultimate benefits of establishing a real merchandising aspect to your career efforts?

I think it’s too early to tell. However, I do believe it helps to have a brand and a look. A logo for example.

Does merchandising ultimately assist in building your fan base, and if so how does that happen?

Hopefully and probably primarily via word-of-mouth or social media. Social media is another form of word-of-mouth anyways.

Do you find that merchandising works best online or on the gig?

The few times I had to take t-shirts to sell on a gig, they all sold out. I have not yet tried to sell any of the current merch at live shows simply because we have not had many shows. I’m also hesitant to schlep all of that stuff around . . .

As an educator you have opportunities to mold and shape aspiring musicians down the difficult path to professional artistry. What do you say to musicians who would respond that it¹s challenging enough to perform at the highest artistic level, and perhaps too large a challenge to be overly concerned with merchandising?

I think that’s a very fair point. Merchandising takes time, money, and physical space. I would only encourage doing so if it’s going to be fun and not arduous.

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Cruisin’ in pursuit of great jazz


Having previously experienced one lone cruise, and that one a 4-day wedding destination cruise, I had little context for the jazz cruise experience… at least not until the recently sailed Blue Note at Sea. The verdict: there’s a whole lot to love about a jazz cruise, and particularly this Blue Note at Sea experience! Sailing for only its second annual voyage, a multi-culti, international audience of jazz revelers set sail from Ft. Lauderdale on Saturday, January 27 for seven days chock full of performances and heavily laden with great measures of the kind of vacation-worthy pampering and amenities aboard the well-stocked, 11-decked Celebrity Summit that only a first class cruise can boast.

To call Blue Note at Sea a floating jazz festival is a bit too cliched, but that’s precisely what it felt like, though that analogy should be employed only for snapshot descriptive purposes. After all, where else can one experience a multitude of performances mere steps from one’s bedroom, a short stroll from amenities ranging from poolside to spa to inviting deck chairs and chaise lounges, to high class cafeteria-style dining (with several ala carte restaurants available if one chose to go off the grid of the plan one purchased and pick up checks), perhaps even chatting along the way, gazing at this ship’s notable visual arts displays, or sharing a meal tableside with an NEA Jazz Master like Dee Dee Bridgewater, Dr. Lonnie Smith, or Chick Corea (who were all onboard for the duration)? And as was overheard throughout the week many times from delighted fellow cruisers – experience all that without once having to crank up the car, hit the streets and subsequently find parking upon arrival!

Those aforementioned amenities included housekeeping conveniently dropping off the next day’s schedule of events each day on your freshly made bed, along with a different promotional gift (including Blue Note at Sea-emblazoned baseball caps, water bottles and assorted other souvenirs) daily. Not to mention the charming, accommodating ship crew.

Day 1, a great tone-setting night of melody and tune, brought a bit more relaxed agenda than the succeeding 6 days – the music didn’t begin until 5:00pm, with some duo piano-bass from the facile pianist Caleb McCampbell (from Marcus Miller‘s band) and bassist Boris Kozlov in the Grand Foyer opposite what soon became the hippest onboard watering hole, the popular Martini Bar, whose daily happy hour quickly became mandatory!). McCampbell and Kozlov were among the crew of MVP-type onboard artists who were skillfully mixed and matched for sets throughout the week in the various venues and ensemble configurations. Other world-class artists who were similarly employed throughout the week included bassists Ben Williams, Tom Kennedy, and Derrick Hodge, drummers Nate Smith, Alex Bailey, and Kendrick Scott, guitarists Lionel Loueke and Brad Allen Williams (new to these ears, he was a consistent cruise revelation), pianists Geoffrey Keezer, Sullivan Fortner and Aaron Parks, saxophonists Marcus Strickland and Alex Han, and trumpeters Russell Gunn and Ambrose Akinmusire. Throughout the cruise they and others were mixed and matched, sometimes as leaders, most times as sidemen, and always with great contributing presence.

RUSSELL GUNN

At 5:15 vocalist Jose James played one of several sets throughout the cruise in Deck 4’s comfortable (plush chairs and ubiquitous bar service) Rendez-Vous Lounge, with his onboard band of Fortner, Ben Williams, Brad Allen Williams, and Nate Smith on drums. The cruise became a floating laboratory for James’ development of his new Bill Withers project, which he’ll record for Blue Note in September, and which he always graciously thanked the audience for being part of the bloom. James, guitar in tow, crooned and shouted familiars from Withers’ rich songbook with great aplomb and expressed his delight at this first opportunity to sing Withers’ songs for an audience comprised largely of Boomers and slightly younger middle agers who had lived those songs and had those lyrics down pat. In a phenomenon we witnessed for several performers who made multiple appearances throughout the cruise, as the good grapevine buzz for what James was putting down on Deck 4 circulated throughout the ship, by his final hit on the following Friday evening as we sailed back to Ft. Lauderdale attendance was totally SRO – and you’d best get there early!

The talent was always there with Jose James, but there was a seeming inability to find his proper niche. This Bill Withers project really seems to be in his wheelhouse. He’s clearly not merely dabbling with Withers’ songbook and has obviously invested a lot of research and woodshedding into approaching this music, which he says was initially motivated by the fact that not enough people fully recognize Withers oeuvre. In one of his introductory monologues during the cruise, James mentioned how stunned he was to find that the most common Google search for Withers was “Is Bill Withers dead!” And besides his efforts at owning Withers’ songs, James unleashed some strong improvisatory passages. As a member of the hip hop generation, he is rapidly developing an uncanny sort of turntable scat; at least once per set he would skillfully run scat choruses in the stop/start hiccuping manner of a turntablist’s rhythmic alterations of Lp lyric passages.

At 6:30 Dee Dee Bridgewater played one of several cruise iterations of her new “Memphis” soul project. Having first seen this project at Monterey in September, its clear that in the interim Dee Dee has worked out the kinks and become completely comfortable with what for her is a return to her Memphis birthplace and that city’s incredible R&B history. She borrows gems ranging from the Staple Singers’ civil rights era lament “Why Am I Treated So Bad” to Al Green‘s book. The next day I conducted one of several packed house artist Q&A sessions with Dee Dee and she provided enthusiastic details on how she’s arrived at this painstakingly researched classic R&B project. Throughout the cruise these daily Q&A sessions, conducted also by Sirius XM’s Mark Ruffin, Marcus Miller, JazzTimes publisher Lee Mergner, and Blue Note president Don Was, were hugely popular among cruisers, who relished opportunities to pitch questions at the accommodating artists. Later in the week I conducted a Q&A session with B-3 master Dr. Lonnie Smith for another rapt audience.

A relaxing Day 1 dinner later we eased back down a deck to the Rendez-Vous for the first of vocalist Niki Harris‘ several performances. The daughter of the late pianist Gene Harris, who many Blue Note Records old heads will recall from the unit known as the Three Sounds, the personable Niki, whom we’d met at the cruise hotel in Ft. Lauderdale, is one of the most adroit vocalists on the current scene; this sister can literally sing it all! Accompanied by Fortner, Brad Allen Williams, Kozlov and Nate Smith throughout the cruise, Niki Harris was one of the true revelations for many cruisers, and the grapevine was on fire! You had to get there early for all of her subsequent performances. Notably, for her opening performance Ms. Harris delivered a delicious, decidedly jazz arrangement of the silky Isley Brothers classic “For The Love of You.”


NIKI HARRIS WAS A REVELATION TO MANY CRUISERS

Fifteen minutes after Niki closed at 10:30 was saxophonist and cruise musical director Eric Marienthal‘s Late Night Jam with Parks, Kennedy, and Scott on Deck 11 in the Blue Note Records Upbeat Lounge. Alas we missed that because the next hit simply had to be bassist Marcus Miller‘s first of several performances, hosted by his long time compadre David Sanborn, featuring Chick Corea in the ship’s main venue, the Celebrity Theater, an accommodating concert-hall like venue with balcony and the only assigned seating of the experience. Miles Davis is the most obvious intersection for Chick and Marcus and they opened with a mini-MD set of “If I Were a Bell,” “All Blues,” and Marcus’ familiar “Tutu”. And that was all just Day One!

Here I should add that each evening’s Mainstage performance had 6:30-8:00pm seatings, followed by a 9:00-10:30 hit, with passengers guaranteed seating at one or the other and plenty of opportunities to experience both concert sets should one wish for two helpings. Also at 11:00pm the first night was one of the daily film screenings for those with cinematic preferences for films ranging from classics like Cabin in the Sky (screened on Sunday morning) to Bird and Round Midnight.

Blissful hours in the sack later – with the sea rolling hypnotically by just outside our balcony window – breakfast yielded to Day 2 (Sunday)’s Gospel Show at Sea, skillfully captained by trombone master Wycliffe Gordon, featuring a band comprised of Strickland, Keezer, Scott, Kennedy, Brad Allen Williams, and most especially the always delightful Niki Harris, who knows a gospel turn as easefully as she does jazz standards. We really ought to be hearing more Niki Harris! Later that night, recalling the production values of his impressively eclectic former television series “Night Music”, David Sanborn played one of several themed, all-star concerts, “Herbie’s World: The Music of Herbie Hancock” in the converted Cosmopolitan Dining Room.

Clearly one of the joys of Blue Note at Sea is the opportunity to experience artists in different contexts – as both leaders and sidemen – and the core leaders like Corea, Bridgewater, Dr. Lonnie, Miller, James, Harris, and Sanborn on multiple occasions, providing cruisers with a more nuanced sense of the gifts of these artists. Other delights of the garden included: afternoon poolside sets, including a configuration of Parks, Bailey, Ben Williams, Gunn and alto man Alex Han, who along with Gunn repeatedly distinguished themselves, including as part of Marcus Miller’s unit. Speaking of the latter, he and Marcus Strickland both brought their bass clarinets onboard. It was particularly encouraging to see Strickland essaying on bass clarinet on the sets he led throughout the week, as opposed to the more familiar soprano sax which he left at home this trip.

The R&B feel was expertly represented on Blue Note at Sea. Besides three performances of Dee Dee’s “Memphis” project, there was Niki Harris’ jazz book leavened with soul, Wycliffe Gordon’s rootsy Sunday morning gospel show, Jose James demonstrating the ease of fitting Bill Withers’ songbook into jazz-infused atmospheres and Maceo Parker’s closing night performances. Recognizing where he was cruising, Maceo skillfully employed jazz standards as connective tissue (e.g. “The Nearness of You”) between the funk (including his nightly Ray Charles tribute, where he brought out Sanborn for some alto shine), removing any doubts as to his own horn bonafides. Of a lesser note were the somewhat disjointed, largely neo-soul concert performances of vocalist Lalah Hathaway, whose holy ghost-invested vocal depth charmed with a set of her father Donnie’s unforgettable songs, but otherwise her show failed to catch fire. Dr. Lonnie Smith brought a grooving sense of improvisatory voodoo soul to the cruise, delivering his mastery in a decidedly modern manner but one that inevitably harkened back to a time when the B-3 organ ruled in black communities across the country. During our Q&A his story of how “Move Your Hand” became an early calling card was priceless.

NEA Jazz Master Charles Lloyd, who dropped onto the boat at the Ocho Rios, Jamaica docking (informing cruisers this was his first cruise experience), stayed long enough to deliver two kinetic performances of his Charles Lloyd & the Marvels music, made all the more distinctive by Bill Frisell‘s uncanny guitar and pedal steel master Greg Leisz. Eric Harland on drums and Reuben Rogers on bass rounded out the Marvels. Rogers, playing bass guitar throughout, was particularly animated in his delightful guitar interactions with Frisell.

Likewise boarding at Ocho Rios and remaining for the duration – and seeming to be in big fun mode every time we spotted him onboard at someone else’s set or on shore excursions thereafter – was Robert Glasper, who made two performances in trio with his familiars Damion Reid on drums and Vicente Archer on bass, and two performances as part of a Blue Note All-Stars lineup with Akinmusire, Strickland, Loueke, Scott, and bassist Derrick Hodge; one performance notably opening with Ornette Coleman‘s “The Turnaround,” made all the more distinctive by the sound scientist Lionel Loueke’s uncanny sonic universe.

Illustrating two of Blue Note at Sea’s growing marks of distinction – its engagement of more next & now-gen artists than the traditional jazz cruises, and its encouragement of their performing their original music – was trumpet ace Ambrose Akinmusire’s closing set. Working in quartet with Sullivan Fortner, Ben Williams, and Kendrick Scott, Akinmusire delivered a beautiful hour of his growing book of originals with one of the most gorgeously developed trumpet sounds to have arrived this millennium. And what a splendid way that was to close out a gas of a week onboard Blue Note at Sea!

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