The Smooth Jazz Cruise 2012 -- A Review by The Smooth Jazz Ride

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TSJR Review of The Smooth Jazz Cruise 2012

Feb. 6, 2012

Memorable experiences. As a small child believing in Santa Claus, the tooth fairy, and the Easter Bunny.  Your 16th birthday and the party that went with it. Graduating from high school and/or college. All of these are events ingrained in our subconscious and bringing smiles each time they cross our minds. Well, if you’re a true music lover and, more specifically, a contemporary jazz music lover, there is one more experience you simply must add to that list. If you have never cruised aboard an ocean liner completely dedicated to you and your musical tastes, this article’s for you. If you are a veteran cruiser, I’m probably preaching to the choir, as they say. Still, it must even bring a smile to those faces as they recall and agree with my observations.

The Smooth Jazz Cruise (SJC), now dubbed as Entertainment Cruise Productions’ Greatest Party At Sea, has been catering to and pleasing smooth jazz fans since 2004. I have been aboard each cruise except one. Each has been equally exhilarating. If you don’t mind being totally spoiled, totally on vacation, you will quickly realize what a week-long paradise you have just entered. There’s more food than you could ever care to eat in a week-almost around the clock, outrageously great live music from many of your favorite contemporary jazz artists in a most comfortable setting each evening (for the main shows) and in every nook and cranny aboard the ship all day and night, cozy cabins, a casino for you chance-takers, and exotic ports of call where everything from trinkets to native foods to clothing to expressive paintings is offered. In addition, there’s literally a party going on each night all over the place. Add to that the luscious view of the deep blue Atlantic as you sail from port to port, and you couldn’t ask for one single thing more. Allow me to point out some of the major highlights of this particular cruise:

Sunday, Jan. 15 – The reconnect/get-acquainted period following embarkation is probably as exhilarating as any other moment on the cruise. Such jubilance and excitement over what lies ahead for the week and being able to discuss that and other things with old and new friends – simply priceless.

Our cabins were promptly ready as soon as we boarded, eliminating frustrating waits for access as you lug around carry-on luggage and garment bags.  Let me mention here that the ship’s crew—from food servers to cabin stewards—always seems too accommodating and pleasantly polite to be true -all the time. Your wish is truly their command. Can you be spoiled any further?? By the way, the tips and gratuities are included in your overall price, although it is politely recommended that you consider making a financial statement of your appreciation when you are preparing to disembark for home. Trust me: They are all so very deserving.

The main show for Sunday began, as all of the shows tend to begin, at 6 pm for those with main dining room seating designations (show first, dinner afterward). The second show began around 9 pm for first dining room seating designations (dinner first, show afterward). Keep in mind that there were—and always are—secondary shows going on all day and night, including the crazy late nightclub vibe of the Crow’s Nest. P-A-R-T-Y was felt everywhere.

This night, we were treated to the charged trumpet of Rick Braun who launched into his signature pieces, as well as providing some insight into Sings With Strings, his latest with a pretty major twist and detour from the contemporary jazz with which he’s touched us over the years. An interesting mix: A little Frank Sinatra style tossed in between “Cadillac Slim” and “Notorious,” among others.

He was followed by the exuberant and always effervescent Jonathan Butler who crooned and played in that polished jazz/R&B style that has become his and his alone. The audience gyrated and stood in ovation for much of his performance.

This was the typically embracing welcome concert that veteran jazzers have come to know well. Newcomers were no doubt most impressed, as well, as I heard a few exclaim their determination to return next year and quite possibly for as long as the cruise program continues. Already, on the first night-I was hearing this!

Monday, Jan. 16 – Our first port of call: Nassau, Bahamas. The weather was a bit atypically cool, but that deterred no one’s enthusiasm.

In addition to a “Pimp My Tee Shirt” pool party with “house band” DW3 (a really rocking group),  Bingo Bonanza with comedian Alonzo Bodden, and just too many other side events to mention, the performers for our main show (6:00 pm) that night were a real treat for serious jazz aficionados. Veteran pianist Joe Sample and iconic saxman David Sanborn, two of the true pioneers of contemporary jazz, served up jazz supreme. They both amused and informed the audiences with stories of a few of their adventures and collaborations. This was truly one of the main must-see shows of the cruise. Memorable tunes like Sample’s “Hippies On a Corner” and Sanborn’s “Chicago Song” rocked the house. If you were watching closely, you could see bassist/co-host Marcus Miller doing the “slop” in the background — almost out of view — to Sample’s cover of a blues track called “Chicken Shack” (there was a great story behind the latter tune, but too long to convey here). Too cool!

Later that night, as part of the late-night activities, there was a fascinating poolside pajama party. That continued well into the night in the Crow’s Nest, with DJ Jazzy Jeff holding down the grooves. Can you say “Whew???”

Tues., Jan. 17 — A soothing whole day at sea enroute to our next port of call, St. Thomas, V.I.  The day gave everyone the chance to unwind (if that was their desire!) and granted first-timers the chance to explore this remarkable equivalent of a moving Disney World for contemporary jazz fans.

During this time at sea, Jonathan Butler conducted a rousing Gospel Show from 11:00 am – 12:30 pm, a program he has headed each year that I have been present. Lots of testifying and blessings, and the place is always packed to the hilt!

“Show Us Your Talent,” the annual showcasing of aspiring musicians, got underway with its initial registration for participants, and “Basketball Shootout With Marcus Miller” attracted ballers seeking to showcase their spins, dunks, three-pointers, etc.

Saxtress Candy Dulfer and keys wiz Brian Culbertson ripped up the stage as our 6:00 pm main show acts. Pass the funk, please!

The night life included Candy Dulfer musical director and keyboardist Chance Howard who converted the Ocean Bar into his own “Boom Boom Room” where he simply jammed out the place.

The Crow’s Nest theme was “Hitsville Night,” featuring the music of Motown. How sweet it was!

Wed., Jan. 18 – We arrived at a much warmer St. Thomas, V.I. where shopping, touring, and just enjoying the weather and sights were in order.

This was also the barbeque lovers’ night, as dinner was transferred from the buffet and formal dining room to the lido deck in the form of chicken, ribs, steak, fish, and everything you can imagine to satisfy your “cookout” cravings. The sweet smell of charcoal was as seductive as a Boney James tune.

The main shows that night, “Stars in Concert – Artist Choice,” found a collection of all of the stars performing one song of their respective choices. Very stirring!

There was also a fitting roast of guitarist Peter White, hosted by Alonzo Bodden. If you know Bodden, you can just imagine how that went.

Thurs., Jan. 19 – Our arrival at St. Barths, V.I., a rather expensive but quaint island with much French influence. The heat was quite intense there, but tourists and natives alike braved it for a stroll along the narrow streets lined with designer shops of all kinds.

On board, activity was alive and kicking as the ship sat in port, patiently awaiting the departure time and the return of those who’d gone ashore.

The main shows on this night featured the British gent of considerable note, guitarist Peter White and the adored sax icon, Kirk Whalum. Both showcased tunes from their respective upcoming releases and charmed all with their proven winners from past albums.

A tribute to Michael Jackson by DW3 on the lido deck was a most welcome feature, as was the Crow’s Nest’s late-night theme, “Old School Jams.”   

Fri., Jan. 20 – Another relaxing day at sea as we cruised toward Holland America’s own Half Moon Cay.

An autograph session with all the artists, a midday lido deck jam with saxman Eric Darius (does this energetic guy ever get tired???), a cooking challenge featuring Gerald and Glynis Albright vs. the guests, a ping pong competition with Brian Culbertson, and a jazz history lesson with Joe Sample all served as part of the early/midday entertainment.

This was also formal wear night (“Paparazzi Party”) – the night when the real stars (the patrons) came out in their dazzling best, fit for the red carpet.

The main shows featured a feast of sax as the beloved Boney James and the personable Euge Groove inspired the audiences to stratospheric heights.

Afterward, the well-dressed audience was treated to the hilarity of comedian Alonzo Bodden, who is always a riot – almost dangerously so, if you’re dressed to the nines.

Sat. Jan. 21 – Always the saddest day of the cruise. It’s the day of farewells. Your last main show, your last night with newfound and old friends who will part ways with you at least for another year, your last time feeling the gentle sailing of the party ship. Still, it’s a bittersweet experience because the party ain’t over ’til it’s over.

This was also our last port of call, Half Moon Cay, before heading back to Ft. Lauderdale. In addition to the usual scrumptious barbeque lunch on the island, the incredibly blue and tranquil water playing along the edges of the clean, soft sand of the sunny beach, the exotic trees serving as shelter from the sun in certain spots, we witnessed adventurous souls parasailing, horseback riding, biking, and hiking. Such a pristine escape from the cares of your often rushed and harried weekday life in the States.

Back on the ship, “Let’s Talk About Sax,” a presentation on the fine art of playing sax, was conducted by Gerald Albright, Eric Darius, Euge Groove, David Sanborn, Kirk Whalum, and Boney James.

Another autograph session was also conducted, as well as a cocktail chat with Brian Culbertson.

The final main shows featured veteran, multi-talented saxman Gerald Albright (boy, does this man know the intricacies of jazz!) and the magnificent bassist/composer/cruise co-host Marcus Miller who took us on a brief and often comical journey through his career.

Sun., Jan. 22 – We arrived in Ft. Lauderdale and proceeded to disembark, our hearts and minds chock full of yet more memories about which to talk with friends who went and those who didn’t go. After bidding a sad farewell to new and old acquaintances, we parted ways, vowing to party again next year, which, by the way, will find the living legend, guitarist George Benson, performing as the special guest.

As I mentioned earlier, this endless, exotic display of appreciation for contemporary jazz and its fans has been dubbed The Greatest Party At Sea. Personally, this critic sees it as The Greatest Party…Period.

This is a must-do on your list of things to do. Too expensive you say? These folks know how to make it easy for you (just contact them or visit www.thesmoothjazzcruise.com). Also, what’s a boatload of warm and tingly memories and feelings worth to you?? Go on, take that plunge. The water’s great…literally! Our deepest and warmest thanks to ECP and The Greatest Party At Sea for putting on such a memorable event. This experience gives a whole new meaning to the phrase “Don’t miss the boat!” – Ronald Jackson

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