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Bear Creek + AURA + Boat = Jam Cruise
Jam Cruise docked back in Miami early Monday morning, and almost immediately many, many of those of board either prebooked for Jam Cruise 17 or were making plans to do exactly that. We survived more than 76 sets of awesome music, greeted old friends, made new ones, and put the real world on the shelf for five glorious days.
I was thinking that Jam Cruise is the perfect festival, but that’s not true. It was, however, perfect for me. Perfect also for my friends, old and new. Perfect for all those who still pine for the glory days of Bear Creek Music & Arts Festival, AURA Music & Arts Festival, and their precursor, Down on the Farm. And perfect for those who weren’t fortunate enough to attend any of those back in the day but hear us whining about them endlessly.
This was Bear Creek and AURA — on a boat!
It’s not a folk fest or a bluegrass fest or an EDM fest or a reggae fest, although we certainly got a taste of each of those. To paraphrase Pigeons Playing Ping Pong, “All we wanna do is F.U.-N.K.” And jazz. The jazz side of this year’s cruise was simply stunning.
This was my sophomore cruise, and it was even more amazing than last year’s event. We were on a new ship, the Norwegian Jade, almost identical to the Pearl from 2017. Because I am insane, I caught all or part of 55 sets this year (and I am paying for that now).
This was also the year of a powerful youth movement (relatively speaking), Andy Frasco and the U.N., the aforementioned Pigeons Playing Ping Pong, and Marcus King and his band. Karl Denson’s Tiny Universe nearly capsized the ship with their rockin’ pool deck set, and Chris Wood on double bass is king. That’s my view; your mileage may vary. Let’s jump right in.
TUESDAY Pre-Party at Wynwood Yard
The pre-party at this arts destination was slammed with Cruisers and non-Cruisers alike. Roosevelt Collier had the opening set, doing what he does best: JAM. With him were Matt Lapham, bass; Jason Matthews, keyboards (Electric Kif); and Anthony AC Cole, drums. Their special guest was Eddie Roberts of The New Mastersounds.
The sound was atrocious, but everyone seemed ready to party and didn’t pay a great deal of attention to the music (which was too bad). Also, the outdoor stage in the courtyard is less than a foot off the ground, so only those directly up front could see much of anything. Nevertheless, Collier persisted. He started with two really hot funk jams before shifting into “Third Stone from the Sun;” the Collier trio had just completed a Jimi Plays Funk tour. After a fine Lapham solo, Collier slid into a brief “Auld Lang Syne.
When Roberts stepped up, they turned to the Meters songbook for “Little Old Money Maker,” Collier and Roberts both soloing. Next, the band lit into a “We Want the Funk” vamp with Cole making shit up on vocals. He should do standup. Roberts was the star of the final tune of the set.
How it was that Turkuaz managed to get all nine members plus equipment on the tiny stage is anyone’s guess; it took MacGyver-type skills for sure. They immediately slammed into “Coast” and then the title track from 2014’s Future 86, and they followed that up with Sly’s “M’Lady.” The sound was still lousy, but they too persisted. It was one big party. The vocals were difficult to distinguish with the overpowering bass and bass drum.
Taylor Shell had a great bass solo on “Chatte,” followed by Craig Brodhead on guitar. For all the sound problems, it was a great set. “Holy Ghost” always brings the house down with baritone sax player Joshua Schwartz on vocals and more great solos from everyone. And, of course, Sami Garett and Shira Elias soared on vocals and precision dance steps.
It ended early enough for people to socialize a bit and then get it together for the morning’s boarding. Also, the food at Wynwood Yard was excellent!
Boarding seemed much easier this year compared to last, with no lines waiting outside. Everyone seemed to appreciate this improvement.
The New Mastersounds had the honors playing the sail-away set at 6 on the Pool Deck Stage. They were sizzling from the word go, the quartet augmented with trumpet and tenor sax. Early in the set, Eddie Roberts introduced Miss Kim Dawson, a fine vocalist. She rendered a solid “California Soul” and “It’s My Thing.” Next, Roberts dedicated a song to his wife, one of her favorites. Seriously, none of us called “Funk #49!”
Pete Shand had a great bass solo, and there was Mike Dillon on stage on percussion. That’s notable, because he didn’t make it last year; he was supposed to join us at Grand Cayman, but inclement weather kept us away. Dillon more than made up for last year’s absence this year! We heard a new tune (“Tatalous?”), and Shand dug deep while Joe Tatton was all over his piano.
Roberts’ beautiful guitar work was a highlight all set. Dillon soloed, then Simon Allen joined him on drums. WOW! The horns came back, as did Miss Dawson, and they closed with a magnificent straight-ahead jazz romp.
The drawback to this set? It was too loud. Look, I get it. You like to have your chest rumble and ears blown out. However, at some point we need to address ear health and loudness. A set that sounds great at level 7 doesn’t sound better at level 9; it just sounds… louder. This is a serious discussion. When the bass and bass drum are so overpowering that you cannot hear the vocals clearly, there is a problem. Sound over the course of five days ranged from excellent to ear-piercing — fortunately, most were the former.
The Jade was almost identical to the Pearl, home of JC 15. One difference was in the configuration of the piano lounge on Deck 6. The piano on the Jade was set back in a small alcove. That may or may not have been why all of those intimate performances were moved to the Deck 7 Atrium, which allowed for more people but which also allowed for a lot more talking. Last year, most patrons who made their way to the Piano Lounge were there to hear the music. There was talking, of course, but it was at a tolerable level.
The problem with the Atrium is that it was a common area and a thoroughfare for those traveling fore and aft, and the music suffered for it. John Medeski had the first set at the grand piano, but the speakers set up were simply inadequate for the room, absolutely wall to wall. When we could inch near enough to the speakers, it was obvious Medeski was in the midst of his piano concerto; it really was magnificent. But the volume in the room overpowered his playing.
The first set in the Starlight Theater was by the Marcus King Band. It too suffered from overpowering bass and bass drum, often drowning out keyboards, trumpet, tenor sax and King’s vocals. Despite all that, this performance was one of the best of the cruise. King’s vocals, guitar work and knowledge of the history of rock indicate that he should be about 50 years old, which doesn’t jibe with the fact that he will turn 22 in March. 22!
The opener began with one of King’s tunes, and with that a real roller coaster ride began, surging through a number of rock classics and gems including “25 or 6 to 4” and Funkadelic’s “I’ll Stay.” That romp lasted 20 minutes! Next King’s voice was prefect for another King’s tune, B.B’s “Sweet Little Angel.” Deshawn Alexander sounded great on Hammond B3, and Justin Johnson had a nice trombone solo. And King did King, so sweetly.
After an awesome funk romp with Alexander on clavinet, the unmistakable intro to CSN&Y’s “Ohio” emerged. The jam kept shape-shifting seamlessly through so many genres and tempos, turning red-hot with two solos from tenor player Dean Mitchell, then into “Jungle Boogie,” so really nasty funk and then swing jazz! Stephen Campbell’s walking bass was amazing! It was clear that, at the age of 21 King is both capable and knowledgeable to go anywhere he damn well pleases.
King introduced a new tune, and we were off through another ride involving Mitchell on baritone sax, a fine drum solo by Jack Ryan, some variation on “Sexy Thing,” “Papa Was a Rolling Stone” and some slam blues. By the time Jam Cruise was over, everybody understood that the torch had been passed — to King — and he grabbed it like a champion.
Holly Bowling was next at the grand piano in the Atrium. It was slightly less crowded and slightly less noisy, but most people didn’t seem to be listening to some spectacular playing from her — until she played a Phish song they recognized, at which point they all erupted. The atmosphere just wasn’t working for me.
I only caught the last 15 minutes or so of the set on the pool deck, a brilliant homage to the late Fela Kuti by Antibalas. It was Afrobeat at its finest, singer/vibes player Amayo a riveting front man. I had enjoyed several of their sets in the past, but none of those hit me like this one did. I made sure I would not miss their next performance as I jetted to the Spinnaker Room for the first time to catch the last half hour of Con Brio.
Singer Ziek McCarter is surely some sort of hybrid, a cross between human and pogo stick. Nobody can bounce like that, can they? The funk was so stupid when I entered, Patrick Glynn’s B3 prominent in the mix. McCarter and band bounced through a number of themes including “Black Hole Sun.” (Not sure which set had “Heart-Shaped Box”) There was a great modified tenor sax solo by Marcus Stephens, and McCarter has a supremely sweet falsetto.
I’ve had the opportunity to see the legendary Maceo Parker perform as an artist at large at Bear Creek, but the opportunity to see him play two sets with his band was almost overwhelming. The band paraded out first to “1999.” The trombone player then introduced Parker. He and the band were dressed in suits and vests, honoring the tradition. This was a set true to the jazz funk tradition of which Parker is an important part.
The set shimmered with style, grace and funk. The bass was a bit too loud during “Make My Funk;” the music totally blew up into even more incredible funk with a great bass solo. That led into “Just Give Me Some Mo’” and “Somebody Been Sleepin’ with My [?],” with an excellent trombone solo, great electric piano and Parker on alto blowing “Resolution” from A Love Supreme! They shut down the great set with the guitarist singing “Let’s Get It On;” he too was a great player.
We returned to the pool deck to witness the power of Medeski, Scofield, Martin and Wood. We only caught the end of this set. MMW had turned in a stellar performance the previous Saturday at the Sunshine Music Festival in St. Petersburg, and with their guitar cohort they continued. The overall sound was much better, highlighting once again the brilliance of Chris Wood, especially on his double bass. We promised ourselves to catch all of their next set.
On our first cruise last year, we had struck up an immediate friendship with Vera Ann and Mindy Dillon and later lamented that Mike Dillon was unable to get on board. So it was with great joy that I made it to the Bliss Lounge for the jazz jam with host — Mike Dillon! Upon arrival, I was delighted to see Karl Denson and Chris Littlefield, among others, on stage as Dillon introduced a Lionel Hampton tune. Vera Ann and Mindy were there, of course. Dillon led off on vibes, then Littlefield on muted trumpet, Denson’s tenor and piano.
Next up was Monk’s “Rhythm-A-Ning,” with Denson blowing a world of tenor. Then, in tribute to the late Col. Bruce Hampton, Ret., and Sun Ra, of course, out spilled a glorious “Space is the Place,” really uptempo. Everybody was cooking, and there was a second gent on vibes. And “Freedom Jazz Dance” was incredible, Skerik on tenor, fabulous walking bass, great flugelhorn, then Dillon declaring, “I’VE GOT A JAM BAND MOM!” to thunderous applause, Vera Ann beaming. John Morgan Kimock was a kit, and Dillon must have known I wanted to hear him since a snippet of “Great Lakes Tuna!”
Lotus. Lotus! they must have done a Vulcan mind meld to determine all the songs I wanted to hear, because that’s exactly what they played. It was the best set I’ve ever heard from them. Mike Greenfield was brilliant on drums, in perfect sync with Jesse Miller’s bass.
I was so excited for the next set but left… disappointed, and I was not alone. Naughty Professor is a fabulous jazz band from New Orleans. They have worked occasionally with Chali 2na, and this was one of those collaborations. The problem was that the Naughty Professor horn-playing front line — Nick Ellman, John Culbreth, and Ian Bowman — were all relegated to the back of the pool deck stage, almost as an afterthought. The band was fronted by 2na and by Hammond B3 player and singer.
It just didn’t feel right. Naughty Professor has every right to proceed in any musical direction they want, but for me and some other fans this was a step too far. (I am delighted to say that their next performance was much closer to where we hoped they’d be.)
Finally, a stop in the Jam Room with George Porter, Jr., and a stacked bunch of friends including John Medeski and Ian Neville. They worked through great renditions of “Turn On Your Lovelight” and “Chameleon” before I shut down.
Finish reading Music Fest New’s Recap of Jam Cruise 17 HERE.