It’s not just the variety of musicians that make Jazz Fests so popular. It’s having so many musicians thrown together in a relaxed, less-structured environment that offers moments of totally unrehearsed magic. So it was at the recent 15th annual JazzFest At Sea.
Adding to the pleasure is the intimate nature of this Fest. The MSC Divina is a large, beautiful ship with all the amenities one would expect on a fine cruise. Our JFAS group, limited to 250 guests, enjoyed the pleasure of a private lounge with luxurious cabaret seating, rather than the usual rows of chairs.
The spacious room also featured a dance floor and full-service bar. The setup allowed for easy mingling between the musicians and guests, many of whom have been regulars over the years. Allan Vaché, as music director, brought together a group of superb musicians, all headliners in their own right, whom he mixed and matched in a series of 45-minute sets. The result was ten days of exciting, unpredictable, swinging music.
The opening rousing set provided the tone for the rest of the cruise. It featured Bob Draga, Jon-Erik Kellso, Terry Myers, Jeff Barnhart, Paul Keller, Kevin Dorn, and Banu Gibson. The music continued with three sets every evening plus another two on the four afternoons we were at sea. In total there were 37 individual sets with the professionals, plus daily Jam Sessions for guests who wanted to learn and improve their skills.
The highlights are too many to mention. It seemed that every day brought another “special moment.”
One such was Allan Vaché, the foremost interpreter of Benny Goodman, offering a moving composition of his own, “Blues for Kenny”, dedicated to his mentor Kenny Davern. Another when he, in a set titled “Licorice Sticks,” contrasted the Goodman sound with Bob Draga’s Artie Shaw interpretations.
Yve Evans provided many other special moments. An accomplished musician, one moment she is singing a lovely rendition of a ballad or blues, the next she breaks up the other musicians (and audience) with wonderfully wicked witticisms. She is truly a force of nature whose mind, as she admitted, never turns off. When paired with Bob Draga, no mean wit, the repartee sizzles.
Another memorable set saw Banu Gibson belting out a blues accompanied by Yve Evans, Anne Barnhart, and Laura Leary as her backup singers with Stephanie Trick on piano.
I particularly enjoyed Bob Leary. His cheeky ditties hide exceptional guitar and banjo playing as he provided rhythm for the different grouping. In “Gypsy Jazz,” Bob was featured with his wife Laura Leary on violin.
“It’s All About Bass” showed off the talent of Charlie Silva and Paul Keller in an amazing exhibition of technique. Using the same bass instrument, they kept perfect rhythm as each took a turn in alternating on almost every other note, while accompanying Terry Myers. This was a special arrangement to feature both of them. It was in their individual work, however, continually keeping the swinging rhythm for all the other musicians, that one had many moments of enjoying two exceptionally talented musicians. * The same was true of Danny Coots and Kevin Dorn who provided first class drumming for the entire Fest as well as being featured together in a “Drum Boogie” set.
The third married couple among the musicians, Stephanie Trick and Paolo Alderighi are both piano virtuosos. Their duet performance is delightfully entertaining. Individually they, or Jeff Barnhart, provided outstanding piano accompaniment for each of the sets.
“Brass Conference” featuring a front line of Jon-Erik Kelso, Russ Phillips, and Davy Jones with Banu Gibson backed by Danny Coots, Paul Keller, and Paolo Alderighi provided some hot, rousing music reminiscent of Bourbon Street.
One of the most memorable, totally unrehearsed moments occurred between Jeff and Anne Barnhart. Just after Anne had sung the first words of “If This Isn’t Love,” the soundman hit the wrong button. Satchmo’s voice poured out of the speakers with “Give Me a Kiss to Build a Dream On.” To the audience’s delight, Jeff immediately jumps up from his piano and starts to mime and lip-sync. As the sound of Satchmo ends the Basie big band is heard. Jeff and Anne proceed to first dance a few steps to the rhythm and then, on piano and flute, start accompanying the Basie recording. Suddenly there is silence as the soundman pushes the right button. Without blinking an eye Anne starts right back into her song with Jeff accompanying. It was one of the finest moments of seeing two consummate professionals improvising. It truly was a “you had to be there” moment. Of course, the audience loved it.
A footnote to the entire 10 days was the remark made by my brother-in-law who had joined us for his first ever Jazz Fest. On about the fifth day, he remarked “I never knew that the music I love so much is called Jazz!”
JazzFest At Sea is organized by Allan Vaché with Cruise & Vacation Depot. The 2020 line-up has already been published. More information at www.jazzfestatsea.com.