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07/23/10


Jazz Takes an Easy Ride on the Smooth Cruise

By Nate Chinen, the New York Times



THE waters were placid, the breeze was a balm and the Statue of Liberty was keeping her vigil about a hundred yards aft. Maybe more, maybe less. From the rear deck of the Spirit of New York one recent evening, she seemed plenty close, anyway, and oddly approachable: an onshore well-wisher, watching over the slow pivot that marked the midpoint of our tour. By chance, this was the moment at which the music stopped, and a voice overrode the applause: “We’re going to skip ahead 27 albums and play something new for you.”

The Smooth Cruise in New York books some of the best-known performers in jazz, like Spyro Gyra, with Julio Fernandez, above.


A couple hit the dance floor as Spyro Gyra performed on a recent Smooth Cruise.


That was Jay Beckenstein, the saxophonist and leader of Spyro Gyra, making a segue from “Shaker Song,” which opens the band’s 1978 debut, into “Unspoken,” from an album released last year. We were aboard the Smooth Cruise, now in its 13th year, held each Wednesday through summer’s end by Spirit Cruises. Most passengers were inside with the band, closing in on a swatch of dance floor, but the sound was also being piped on deck, where I slouched at a rail. I was having a suspiciously good time.



Smooth jazz is all about pleasure, but I hadn’t expected much. It isn’t really my thing, this waxy, wine-lighted catchall genre — also known by niche-programming terms like urban contemporary, chill and, confusingly, contemporary jazz. Not that I’m inclined to moralize about it; for me, smooth jazz has always been less of an affront than an afterthought, like frozen TV dinners. My fallback strategy is avoidance. So any thoughts of boarding a Smooth Cruise stirred a mild trepidation, along with a milder enthusiasm.

The enthusiasm was almost conceptual, rooted in the elegance of the pairing. I mean, Smooth Cruise: the two words seem meant for each other. Both cruises and smooth jazz hold the promise of a passive indulgence, of kicking back and letting go.



Not surprisingly, the luxury cruise industry is on top of this, with big-ticket enticements like the Smooth Jazz Cruise, which pokes around the Caribbean in January, and Dave Koz & Friends at Sea, off the Alaskan coast in August. “The absolute finest in lifestyle entertainment,” pledges Mr. Koz, the saxophonist, in an online mission statement; his weeklong cruise features himself, along with the likes of Kirk Whalum and Mindi Abair.

A more modest experience is proffered by Spirit Cruises, and a lesser commitment is required. The Smooth Cruise in New York runs a brisk two hours; a pair of tickets for the “sunset” outing was $82.72, but taxes and fees bring them to just over $100. (A “moonlight” option, the equivalent of a second set, is the same price.) A dinner buffet and drinks are optional.


And the Smooth Cruise, organized by Smooth Jazz New York, a subsidiary of Marquee Concerts, doesn’t skimp on headliners. Next week’s cruise will feature Pieces of a Dream, a band whose track record runs nearly as far back as Spyro Gyra’s. Mr. Whalum will appear on Aug. 11, as one of the saxophonists in a popular Guitars and Saxes package; Ms. Abair, yet another saxophonist, is scheduled for Aug. 25. The Rippingtons will play the week in between on Aug. 18.


Not all of these artists luxuriate in their smoothness.

“We preceded smooth jazz by nearly a decade,” Mr. Beckenstein said by phone a couple of days after the cruise. “We came out of Weather Report and Miles Davis and the fusion movement. And smooth jazz, interestingly enough, was more of a radio format than it was a style of music. A whole generation of artists, especially after the success of Kenny G, was encouraged by record companies to chase the radio format. That’s not what we did. So no, I’ve never considered myself a smooth jazz artist.”


Still, he allowed, Spyro Gyra is booked on the Capital Jazz SuperCruise in October out of Miami, along with Mr. Whalum, George Duke and others.


A similar ambivalence has plagued the smooth jazz economy in recent years. It buckled significantly in 2008, when WQCD-FM, the New York beacon long branded as CD101.9, switched to a rock format, like many other smooth jazz stations across the country. The shift has prompted its share of reflection. Last month Kenny G himself released an album with guest turns by Babyface and Robin Thicke, tactically aligning himself with R&B. The keyboardist Brian Culbertson did much the same on an album released this week. (His guests include Kenny Lattimore and Brian McKnight.)


The Smooth Cruise — which often sells out its capacity of 600 each on two cruises a night — is a haven from these market calculations, even though CD101.9 was its title sponsor for years.

“When they changed format — well, that audience is still there,” said Bill Zafiros, CD101.9’s former event director, now a partner in Marquee Concerts. “So what we’re doing is serving that audience. And they’re very passionate about this music.”


My experience confirmed his claim: the base for this particular “lifestyle entertainment” is loyal and enthusiastic, as well as ethnically and demographically diverse. While awaiting boarding, at Pier 61 at Chelsea Piers, I encountered only repeat customers, like Cheryl Davis and her husband, Richard, of Brooklyn. They said they hardly missed a Smooth Cruise last summer, and had similar plans for this year. (Another discovery made in line: the Smooth Cruise is partly sponsored by The New York Times, for the second year in a row.)


There are three decks on the Spirit of New York, and during a Smooth Cruise, the second deck is where the musicians set up on the dance floor, along the ship’s port side. Seasoned cruisers either scored a spot within several feet of the musicians or made a beeline for the third deck, where a string of coveted tables overlooked the dance floor, as if along a horseshoe balcony.


Others headed straight to the buffet, though I can report that the food, at $19.23 a head (pretax was steam-tray grim, a defeated allotment of leathery prime rib, grayish salmon and congealed mac-and-cheese. Far better to make pre- or post-cruise restaurant reservations, thereby avoiding not only the buffet but also the need for a table.


Freedom to move about the ship is, after all, one thing that distinguishes the Smooth Cruise from a place like the Blue Note, where Spyro Gyra played a weeklong stand last year. Hence the leisurely Statue of Liberty sighting, and a later excursion to the windswept top deck, for a never-gets-old perusal of the Lower Manhattan skyline.


But that was me. Plenty of other patrons stayed put, listening raptly to the band. And as a long, flashy drum solo led inexorably toward the encore — ”Morning Dance,” a certifiable smooth-jazz classic, complete with synthesized steel drums — the dance floor got blissfully crowded, as in the final stretch of a good wedding reception. That glow had barely faded by the time we were back at Pier 61, steeling ourselves for the grit of summer pavement. No doubt some of us were already making plans for next time.


http://www.nytimes.com/2010/07/23/arts/music/23jazzcruise.html?_r=1&hpw



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