The 2013 Smooth Jazz Cruise: Celebrating 10 Years of “The Greatest Party at Sea”!

JONATHAN WIDRAN

Celebrating its 10th Anniversary with consecutive week runs in January, The Smooth Jazz Cruise—accurately rebranded a few years ago as “The Greatest Party At Sea”—has become one of the genre’s most anticipated annual events. Even as terrestrial smooth jazz radio stations have waned or changed formats in recent years, hundreds of diehard fans, many of who have become friends of other fans and the musical performers, trek each year to Ft. Lauderdale to board one of Holland America’s “dam” ships (this year was the Westerdam) to have a blast watching their favorite artists and enjoy multiple opportunities to interact with them.

That’s always been one of the most remarkable aspects of the cruise experience. You can see Rick Braun do an hour headlining set on Sunday night and then play golf with him (as part of an official excursion) in Cozumel, Mexico a few days later. Or see the ever-energetic Richard Elliot slam it in the ship’s main showroom on Monday night, and then snorkel with him a few days later at one of the ship’s other ports, Belize City. And what could be more fun than checking out Jonathan Butler’s powerful mix of vocals and guitar instrumentals and then seeing him hanging at the pool or Jacuzzi at the top of the ship. Or chilling out at the Lido restaurant? Beyond the expectations of high-octane main stage performances from A-list artists and exciting shows in smaller venues on the ship from other genre performers, the personal connection is what keeps the fans spending their hard-earned dollars for a musical week at sea year after year.

Having been on The Smooth Jazz Cruise several times in the past, I always noted another remarkable feature: that if you missed a show or two for any reason (seasickness, overload of buffet!), there would be more opportunities to see those favorite artists either sneaking in a cameo during another set, or as part of other events – including the final night’s all star jam, where each featured main stage performer (and a few playing the smaller rooms) got another chance to play a single favorite tune. This aspect was particularly necessary for my experience this year, since I missed the first few days due to my sister’s medical emergency right after we boarded the ship. We spent Sunday night in the emergency room in Ft. Lauderdale, and once she was cleared, we booked a flight to meet the cruise at its first stop in Cozumel. Tuesday morning’s connector flight to Dallas was cancelled, so we didn’t leave Ft. Lauderdale till Wednesday when we connected through Atlanta and arrived in Cozumel in the afternoon.

The crazy and scary comedy of errors led us to board the ship on the perfect night, when special guest headliner George Benson performed in the Vista Lounge. His explosive 80 minute set mixed some colorful guitar instrumentals (including the smooth jazz format’s iconic “Breezin’” and “Tequila”) with funky hits like “Turn Your Love Around” and “Give Me The Night”. Saving the best for the encore, he rocked “On Broadway” for ten minutes with some unexpected cameos by fellow headliners David Sanborn, Marcus Miller and Jonathan Butler (who counts Benson as one of his idols). Once Benson left the stage, his band and the guests started an impromptu romp through the old Jacksons’ song “Shake Your Body Down To the Ground”. Miller, whose plucky bass and colorful hosting is an integral part of the SJC all week, said it all when he riffed, “Wow, jamming with Benson’s band when Benson’s left the stage…only on the Smooth Jazz Cruise, people!” Late that night up at the pool, the popular Orange County, CA band, DW3, donned fake afros (as did Brian Culbertson, who sat in) and jammed on an hour and a half of 70s funk hits. Everyone was dressed up in 70s garb and dancing on deck.

Thursday and Friday had some of the best main stage shows too, with first time cruiser, legendary keyboardist Bob James, funking up the smooth on classics like “Westchester Lady” and his iconic “Theme From Taxi.” He also treated everyone to a brand new composition he was performing for the first time, appropriately titled “Sea Goddess”. Anyone who missed that show (or the opening night set by Sanborn) could see both legends do something extraordinary late Friday night, when they performed (for the first time ever live) the entire set of their classic 1986 Grammy winning album Double Vision with Miller, who wrote the album’s most renowned instrumental “Maputo.” Vocalist Larry Braggs (from Tower of Power) joined the icons to close the set with a stunning rendition of “Since I Fell For You”. James also did a “Dueling Pianos” show one afternoon with keyboardist Brian Simpson, who is also the cruise’s longtime musical director.

My sister and I were lamenting all week that we had missed Jonathan Butler’s popular Monday morning gospel show – but we got a taste of that during his regular set, which followed James. Butler used his allotted hour to paint a portrait of his life, from instrumentals about his homeland of South Africa, to an older love song for his wife Barenese (one of my personal all time favorites, “Take Good Care of Me”), one for his mom (“Song for Elizabeth”) and the crowd-pleasing “Lies”. He closed with a sample of his extensive gospel discography, the fun spiritual call and response tune “Who Is Like the Lord?” Friday’s headliner shows were equally exciting, with saxophonist Paul Taylor making a memorable, seductive cruise debut and Brian Culbertson going off the hook with his high-energy keyboard tunes and a little fiery trombone for good measure.

The one can’t miss show of the entire week was the all-star jam, whose lineup included one song each by the powerful array of talent that played on the Westerdam all week: Miller, Sanborn, Elliot, Culbertson, James, Braun (“Mustang Sally”), Culbertson, Butler, Candy Dulfer (“Pick Up The Pieces”), Steve Cole, Jeff Golub (“Cut The Cake”), Raul Midon, Angie Stone and Tom Braxton. In memory of Wayman Tisdale, the late bassist who was cruise host for several years before and during his battle with cancer, everyone jammed at the end, with multiple solos and a sizzling horn section on his trademark “Ain’t No Stoppin’ Us Now”. It was the perfect musical ending to a lovely day in Key West and to the musical portion of the cruise.

Honorable mentions in a truly spectacular week of music go to Ken Ford, a popular East Coast violinist who did several funky sets (including one I saw by the pool one afternoon) and comic Alonzo Bodden, who has become as much a part of the SJC experience (commenting on the artist’s foibles in addition to pointing out shortcomings of the ship’s port stops) as any of the musicians. Next year, in addition to the Caribbean run of the SJC, there is a Mexico bound West Coast Edition scheduled for October. The real fans will be on both. They just can’t get enough.

Jonathan Widran is a veteran music journalist who has been a regular contributor, feature writer and columnist for over 15 years to numerous publications and websites, including Music Connection, Jazziz, All Music Guide, Wine and Jazz, Downbeat, amazon.com, and the Los Angeles Times. He is also a well respected PR writer whose clients have included numerous record companies (Columbia, Warner Bros., Capitol) and media organizations (Luck Media and Marketing). Jonathan is also currently a voting member of The Recording Academy.

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