Marcus Miller, Christian McBride, Julian Lage, Brad Melhldau & More Spark Up Blue Note At Sea 2023 Cruise (REVIEW/PHOTOS)

Having never gone on a cruise, let alone an intense music cruise, this author’s and excitement were naturally at a peak for Blue Note at Sea 2023 which sailed from Ft. Lauderdale to St. Maarten and St. Thomas during the week of January 13th to 20th – Friday to Friday. We’ll leave the cruising aspects to others, and we will refrain from any detailed schedules or itineraries and instead let you know the kinds of musical experiences found here that likely cannot be found elsewhere. Before going further, we need to add a qualifier – Blue Note at Sea is not scheduled for 2024 although reputable sources indicate that it will be back at some point. The enduring Jazz Cruise though may be a great substitute and apparently offers even more music in its scheduling.

Consider this for the first major show in the main theater – four of the world’s best electric bassists (Marcus Miller, Christian McBride, Derrick Hodgeand Don Was) engaged in three cutting sessions akin to what one might find from horn players on NYC’s 52n/a street in the early fifties. Yes, it worked remarkably well with mind-blowing solos from Miller, McBride, and Hodge while Was held the bassline. Later that same evening, we witnessed stellar vibraphonist Warren Wolf as a guest and integral member of Chief Adjuah‘s band. Speaking of Wolf, he later showed up as a member of the consistently charismatic Emmet Cohen’s B3 Organ Band, along with trumpeter Freddy Hendrix of The Baylor Project, a lineup that you’ll rarely or never see elsewhere (except perhaps another cruise). Oh, and vocalist John Splithoff from Chris Botti‘s touring ensemble joined the organ band for a couple of vocal tunes. The connections between these players are deep and often rather eye-opening.

Julian Lage

Trumpeter Russell Gunn of Marcus Miller’s five-piece band delivered two outstanding tributes to Miles Davis with “Blackhawk Revisited” with tenorist Keith Loftis of The Baylor Project joining him on the front line for such familiar fare as “So What,” ‘Two Bass Hit,” “Fran Dance,” and “On Green Dolphin Street,” among others. legendary trumpeter Randy Brecker showed up in several shows. Paired with violist Eric Marienthalthey delivered stirring sets of soul jazz backed by pianist Gerald Clayton’s Trio (Joe Sanders -b, Justin Brown -d) to form the classic jazz quintet. This unit took on mega proportions in the special “Horns O’ Plenty” featuring a front line of seven horns. Brecker, Hendrix, Marienthal, Loftis, and Gunn were joined by altoist Steve Wilson of Christian McBride’s Inside Straight and Altoist Donald Hayes from Marcus Miller’s band.

In another show, Gunn and Brecker performed as a blistering front line for “Christian McBride and Friends” with Sullivan Fortner on piano and Jeff Ballard (from Brad Mehldau’s Trio) on drums. Not surprisingly Brecker partnered with altoist David Sanborn, who though physically hampered, showed no signs of wear in his signature blowing. The real pleasant surprise in the makeup of Sanborn’s quintet was pianist Emmet Cohen who arguably stole the show with his rolling comping and soloing. Similarly, McBride’s Inside Straight turned to pianist Gerald Clayton, with whom they had performed at least once before to replace regular member Peter Martin. Clayton fit right in and his dazzling solo along with Wolf’s on “Gang Gang” drew one of the set’s three standing ovations.

Jean Taylor of the Baylor Project

Some of the more intimate performances were equally riveting. Emmet Cohen’s Piano Trio (Philip Norris -b, Kyle Poole -d) backed effervescent singer and scatter Cyrille Aimee in several appearances. Pianist Fortner gave a couple of rare trio performances as he is generally found either solo or with his musical partner, vocalist Cecile McLorin Salvant (more on that later). Joining Fortner for the trio, likely a first-time configuration, was bassist Joe Sanders (Gerald Clayton) and drummer Jeff Ballard. Among the highlights was a solo from Ballard in which he just played the snares and cymbals with just his hands and Fortner sang the ballad “Embraceable You” while accompanying himself only with his left hand.

Duet performances were striking as well, one of the most memorable being wide-grinning bassist Christian McBride performing a duet with his bass-playing father, Lee Smith. McBride, as you might expect, was all over the ship, either playing or on the front or receiving end of interviews. He and pianist Brad Mehldau performed sterling duets in the main theater before accompanying vocalist McLorin Salvant for three songs which led to the only encore witnessed during the week.

During his Sirius XM “Lowdown” interview with Mehldau, McBride and the pianist played three duets including a most sublime “Aqua Man.” Those you may be able to hear at some point. Stay tuned. And, as referenced earlier, a headline billing featured just Fortner and McLorin Salvant as a duo rendering both ballads and originals in spellbinding fashion as only they can. They drew three standing ovations, concluding the show, both seated at the piano and both singing a most tender “Ghost of Our Lost Love.”

While the strength of the musical lineup was clearly with the pianists and vocalists, others stood out too. Forward-thinking guitarist Julian Lage was busy with his trio shows but also showed up to play a calypso number during the “Christian McBride and Friends” show, later joined by percussionist Sheila E. and Brecker for Dizzy Gillespie’s “Manteca.” Word has it that Lage was also part of Derrick Hodge’s ensemble for their one show. Guitarist Rick Lollar of soul singer Jamison Ross’s quartet joined bassist Ben Williams along with Jose James’ bandmates, keyboardist Big Yuki and drummer Jharis Yokley as well as saxophonist Loftis in a freshly assembled group for a one-time-only great R&B show which concluded with Williams’ emotional reading of Bob Dylan’s “The Death of Emmet Till” on MLK Day.

Cyrille Aimee

Vocalist Jose James performed four times for his latest project, a tribute to Erykah Badu and his newly released On and On. In the spirit of adding new blood, in his last two performances, he brought up saxophonists Alex Laurenzi and Jalin Shiver from the Jazz House Kids All-Stars, the NJ-based educational unit headed by Christian McBride and his wife, Melissa Walker.

Three of the main evening shows offered unique performances. The Sunday morning gospel show led by Jamison Ross began with a spiritual duet between Marcus Miller on bass clarinet and Sullivan Fortner on piano. As the performance unfolded, The Baylor Project appeared along with powerhouse vocalist Nikki Harris who stole the show with a roof-raising “This Little Light of Mine.” Not to be outdone Ross and Jean Baylor’s performance of “Call Me” had the house rocking. Marcus Miller’s funky show with his band and guest David Sanborn concluded with guest Weedie Braimah on djembe for an emotional Miller tune about slavery, “Glory” followed by a Miles medley of “So What” into “Tutu” – a to-die-for sequence.

WeedieBraimah

If all that wasn’t enough, Miller’s show, “The History of Jazz” involved all kinds of folks. We heard Marienthal on soprano playing a Dixieland version along with Gunn of “When the Saints Come Marching In.” Marienthal proved to be an amazing bebop player in another sequence and did Paul Desmond proud in Brubeck’s “Take Five.” McLorin Salvant delivered an aching version of “Body and Soul.” tenorist Andy Snitzner (Chris Botti) along with Sheila E. showed intensity on a Coltrane-like version of “Afro Blue.” Russell Gunn showed that he was well versed in Miles’ electric side too as the lead on “Bitches Brew.” Yet arguably the highlights were the soul and blues portions of the show with Jose James’ robust baritone exploding on Bobby Timmons’ “Moanin;” James along with Jean Baylor and Niki Harris on Jr. Walker’s “Shotgun,” Donald Hayes on Lou Donaldson’s “Alligator Booglaoo” and a rip-roaring blues finale on “Everyday I Have the Blues” with Harris, James, and Jean Baylor.

Arguably festivals such as Newport and Detroit offer a wider breadth, but they can’t compete in terms of intimacy, mingling with performers as if they are passengers, and the unexpected musical configurations. Even if you’re not the cruising type, any hard-core jazz musical devotee owes themself this kind of experience. Missing that lavish breakfast buffet and the ice cream bar already not to mention the intimacy of small combos led by Emmet Cohen, Gerald Clayton, Sullivan Fortner, Jamison Ross, and Julian Lage in Celebrity’s Rendezvous Lounge. Check out The Jazz Cruise for 2024. Maybe we’ll see each other at sea.

Photos from Laura Carbone

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