In the fall of 2000, I had the distinct pleasure to experience a week of paradise mixing two of the great loves of my life — smooth jazz and travel to exotic, windswept places with miles of golden beaches and aqua blue water. For one week, Norwegian Cruise Lines’ venerable SS Norway headed from Miami to the Western Caribbean, in the process magically transforming into a smoothie experience of a lifetime.
Imagine lolling on the beach in St. Maarten and shopping in Charlotte Amalie, St. Thomas by day, then listening to Craig Chaquico, Jonathan Butler, Patti Austin and Warren Hill at night? For genre fans who love personally mingling with their favorite stars, I thought, what could be more exciting than having them as a captive audience on a ship, surrounded only by breeze and blue, for a week?
While I was enjoying my fancy suite with a view, the outstanding shows and my first dips ever into the steamy tides of the Caribbean, Warren Hill struck up some interesting conversations with Peter D’Attoma, owner for 25 years of the Akron, Ohio based Davinci Travel Group, which signed on a large contingent of Midwestern based fans for the cruise. Both on board and throughout the following months, the two discussed what they liked and disliked about the event, and how they might have made it an even greater experience.
In the meantime, the original promoters’ goals of making this an annual event fell through, creating an opening for Hill and D’Attoma’s talks to take shape as an upcoming, exciting new reality. On January 18, 2004, the Italian based Costa Cruise Lines’ Costa Atlantica sets sail from Miami for a weeklong jaunt through the Western Caribbean, including stops in Key West, Cozumel, Ocho Rios (Jamaica) and Grand Cayman. Over two thousand enthusiastic smooth jazz fans will be joined by a slate of genre all-star performers — Peter White, Jeff Golub, Kirk Whalum, Chieli Minucci, Euge Groove and Marion Meadows (who played on the 2000 cruise) — in addition to singer Angela Bofill and popular flutist Alexander Zonjic. Their host? None other than the guy who booked them, Warren Hill, who also happens to be headlining.
“There are a lot of great jazz festivals out there, but our goal is to create a one of a kind experience, mixing the luxuries of a world class cruise line, the beauty and fun of these tropical islands and nights full of the best smooth jazz artists I know,” says Hill. “A lot of those signing up are first time cruisers who used to think ships were full of retirees. We’ve been successful at showing them that the audience will be the types that attend most of the regular festivals. There’s so much potential to make this the ultimate event.
“Peter knows the travel and cruise business,” he continues, “and I know the artists and managers, so we each have our strengths. Both schedule wise and creatively, I could look at the gig from an artist’s perspective. I like to think I’m creating a dream gig for myself, and I simply made a wish list of artists and started making calls. We’re basically offering them and their families a great working vacation. January seemed to be the perfect time to both cure the post Christmas blues for some, and offering something more fun and self-indulgent for those whose holidays are full of stressful obligations.”
While the more challenging elements of Hill’s role have instilled in him a newfound respect for what promoters go through, he’s excited about the prospect of creating an ongoing event, annually or perhaps bi-annually. “Already, as the buzz has got going and the best cabins (which start at $829 per person, double occupancy) are selling out, other artists are calling me, wondering why I didn’t ask them,” he says. “I really believe that if everything goes as well as we expect it to, artists will be calling me to sign up for the next cruise. It’s fun to create this kind of excitement.”
Hill describes the Costa Atlantica enthusiastically, noting all of its lush amenities, from a top of the line spa and health club to lovely Italian décor and great food, plus the Coral Lounge, which is actually a lounge made from a bed of coral! Also key are the concert facilities, including the 1,300 seat theatre and secondary lounge which will accommodate Hill’s goal of featuring a total of four artists a night for six nights, plus a midnight jam session for the headliners and their supporting players. Hill is also trying to coordinate a series of master classes, taught by some of the featured musicians, for passenger fans who are also fledging players. Smooth Jazz TV will be on board, chronicling the festivities for fans who need further proof that this may just be the genre’s premier event for years to come.
SMOOTH AFRICA ARRIVES: In conjunction with the magazine’s world music issue this past May, I featured an interview with Dave Love, President of Heads Up Records whose love for the music and beauty of South Africa (and appreciation of that country’s explosive interest in smooth jazz) has led him to create the Smooth Africa recording franchise. Smooth Africa II, the long awaited sequel to the 2000 release, is every bit as spirited, funky and celebration-driven as the first, an exciting cultural exchange featuring label artists (and popular SA live attractions) Joe McBride, Andy Narell and even Spyro Gyra (an immediate smash hit when they played the 2002 North Sea Jazz Festival) jamming between tracks by heretofore unsung (at least to us Americans) native performers and some we Stateside fans know well, including the legendary Ladysmith Black Mambazo. The more notable of these are guitarist Jimmy Dludlu (who drives the playful rhythms of “Walk of Life”), singer/guitarist Allou April (joined by a lush wordless vocal chorus on his Cape Town hit “Bringing Joy”) and vocalist/guitarist Oliver Mtukudzi, one of the country’s greatest stars whose raspy tones capture the gentle emotions of “Neria,” title song from a Zimbabwean film soundtrack. McBride’s happy keyboard funk and Andy Narell’s cool island “Punch” are joined by several local musicians. The title of Spyro Gyra’s festive closer “Cape Town Love” sums up the vibe of this engaging international extravaganza.
RISING STARS: Keep your ears attuned to three new solo artists currently trying to break into the ranks of the tightknit handful of regulars we see on the charts and festival lineups over and over. Smooth jazz has never been overly kind to violinists, despite the moderate success of brilliant composers and performers like Doug Cameron and Charlie Bisharat (both of whom have been off the commercial radar for a few years). A cool, midtempo burst of passion like Noel Webb’s “Fever” (from The Soul of Noel Webb on Labrador Records) could change the instrument’s fortunes. He’s romantic and melodic, into great grooves and slick production, and — if programmers would give him a shot - radio friendly.
I’ve only heard the crisp, brass-tinged funk single “She’s So Fine” by Blake Aaron (from Bringin' It Back on Innervision Records), but his slick electric guitar packs some strong, Jeff Golub-like punch, and Greg Adams’ trumpet adds snazzy texture. An even better guitarist, and one you’ve probably heard before working for the likes of Quincy Jones, David Foster, Whitney Houston and George Duke, is Ray Fuller. His R&B driven self-released debut The Weeper (A Ray Artists Music) is chock full of his all-star pals — Eric Marienthal, Everette Harp, Phil Perry, Teri Lynn Carrington, Ricky Lawson, and George Duke, who gave him his nickname. While Fuller’s crisp, precise electric strings and brilliant mix of material (both originals and covers of classics from Stevie Wonder, John Coltrane and Teena Marie) stand out, it’s clear that he’s enjoying interacting with the company.
EDUCATIONALLY SPEAKING: This being Jazziz’s education issue, I took it upon myself to ask saxman/cruise talent booker Warren Hill the name of his greatest teacher on his chosen instrument. It took him about two seconds to mention Joe Viola, longtime head of the woodwind department at Berklee College of Music.
WHAT I’M LISTENING TO:
1) Shapes, The Last Farewell (Burnin’ Down the House Productions) – How could someone not appreciate six of L.A.’s top session/club cats (Roger Burn, Michael Higgins, Andy Suzuki, etc) joining with a couple of Yellowjackets (including producer Jimmy Haslip) for a genre-defying jam session that goes bop, bossa, ballad and even a little twangy steel guitar country at times?
2) Standing in the Shadows of Motown (Hip-O Records)
3) Annie Lennox, Bare (J Records)
4) Lizz Wright, Salt (Verve)
5) American Idol Season 2: All Time Classic Love Songs (RCA)