By Allen Morrison, from DownBeat, Feb. 2016
For seven days in late October/early November, one of the hippest jazz clubs on the planet was no jazz club at all, but rather Cunard Lines’ flagship Queen Mary 2, during the inaugural Cunard/Blue Note “Jazz at Sea” Festival, during a transatlantic crossing from Brooklyn to Southampton, England.
Accompanied by label president, bassist/producer Don Was, the musicians onboard included some of Blue Note Records’ biggest names: singer Gregory Porter, pianist Robert Glasper, and the Blue Note 75th Anniversary Band, an all-star group featuring Glasper, bassist Derrick Hodge, drummer Kendrick Scott, guitarist Lionel Loueke, saxophonist Marcus Strickland, and trumpeter Keyon Harrold, subbing for Ambrose Akinmusire. Other players onboard included drummers E.J. Strickland and Mark Colenburg, pianist Fabian Almazen, keyboardists Michael Aaberg and Federico Peña, guitarist Mike Moreno, and bassist/singer Alan Hampton.
Cunard has scheduled two more transatlantic crossings featuring Blue Note stars on the luxurious, 2,500-passenger ocean liner in 2016: westbound departing Southampton on August 1 and eastbound from Brooklyn on October 26.
The inspiration for the partnership was Cunard’s, according to Stanley Birge, vice-president of Cunard, N.A. By booking some of the world’s most prominent jazz artists, the passenger ship line, long known for its cultural programming, is trying to appeal to current customers but also to attract a new generation to the cruise line, he said.
The partnership was anything but inevitable, and success was not assured. The venerable British company, which is celebrating its 175th anniversary, is among the most tradition-bound of cruise lines, with a customer base that skews older and includes a high percentage of Brits. Blue Note, celebrating its 75th year, has a different kind of tradition, one of defying convention and expanding the boundaries of jazz. This made for some odd juxtapositions – for example, fox-trotting older passengers in formalwear in a ballroom immediately next door to a nightclub presenting forward-leaning jazz units led by Lionel Loueke or Derrick Hodge.
“Honestly, there was some fear, before we left the dock,” Was said in a shipboard interview, seated by a window in a quiet corner while watching the North Atlantic roll by. He described warily eyeing the passengers as they queued up to board the ship. “There was a disparity between who you’d perceive the jazz audience to be and who was getting on the ship. But it’s been incredible, man! The idea was to give people a taste of something exotic – but that didn’t mean they’d like the taste of it. There was no guarantee. But I think it’s been hugely successful,” he said, noting the growing numbers of passengers showing up for the nightly jazz sets and stopping him in the hallways to express their appreciation for the music.
The experiment got off to rather a shaky start after dinner on the first evening, on the stage of the ship’s 1,094-seat Royal Court Theatre, with the odd combination of a typical cruise ship revue and straight-ahead jazz. The show featured a decidedly un-hip quartet of singers in musty, English music-hall-style recitations of “The Good Life” and “Mack the Knife” (done mambo-style), performed to a canned Midi soundtrack; the big finish involved showgirls in extravagant feathered costumes. After about a half-hour, incongruously, Don Was appeared in his usual shades, dreadlocks and cowboy hat. “How many of you are familiar with Blue Note Records?” he asked. A smattering of applause. “How many are jazz fans?” Another smattering.
After explaining a bit of the Blue Note label’s history and assuring the audience that “you don’t need an advanced degree; jazz is a conversation,” he introduced the Blue Note 75th Anniversary Band, calling them “the best jazz musicians in the world.” (No pressure.) The atmosphere seemed a little tense as the band came out and silently took their places, no one knowing how this would fly with the cruise passengers. They launched into Ornette Coleman’s “Turnaround,” with a series of playful solos that sometimes left conventional tonality behind. It was a statement, almost defiant, that there would be no compromises. Somewhere between a quarter and a third of the audience headed for the exits during the extended soloing.
Nevertheless, by the time they took the stage again a few nights later as the evening’s main performers, the 75th Anniversary Band had made a few adjustments, incorporating more familiar jazz standards like “So What?” and “In Your Own Sweet Way,” to meet the audience halfway. “I thought they were most generous in understanding that a large portion of the audience was uninitiated,” Was said. “They played half of Kind of Blue last night!” he laughed. “It was really fun. It’s not something they would normally play.” This time the audience remained for the whole show and responded warmly.
That response peaked over the next two nights with several appearances by Porter, the crowd-pleasing featured performer. He was backed by the 75th Anniversary Band, in a tight, soulful set featuring brief but tasty solos by the all-stars (a full review will be posted online). Other small group performances in various venues – a mid-ship lounge called the Chart Room, the G-32 night club, and a movie theater/planetarium – featured Glasper’s trio, and groups led by Kendrick Scott, Marcus Strickland, Loueke and Hodge, among others. They drew a growing audience of passengers as the voyage progressed, attracting both the minority who were jazz fans prior to sailing and many new converts.
On the question of whether the paring of Blue Note and Cunard would win new customers to Blue Note or help the label sell more CDs, Was was thoughtful. “My overall feeling, speaking not as a music fan but as a label president, is that selling records to consumers is not a viable business anymore. So I’m very interested in new ways to…monetize the music – or else it’s gonna end. So this is a radical, futuristic model for how everybody can make a little bread, and you can bring in new people to hear the music.”