Midsummer music is nothing without some excellent jazz to go with it. This past week, the infamous Hornblower Infinity hosted its annual summer smooth jazz cruise with not one, not two but three equally talented musicians of BWB (Rick Braun, Kirk Whalum and Norman Brown). Now, these three men have been staples in the smooth jazz world for quite some time as solo performers. However, their collective efforts are full of energy, musical prowess and a powerful spirit of collaboration. Also, Punchland is no stranger to Mr. Braun who was featured earlier this year, so a chance to see him and his contemporaries perform together was a real treat.
Heading over to Pier 40 is a rather easy journey, despite the heat. Once guests arrive at the docks, the white cruise ships float in the midst on the Hudson River. If guests are lucky, a sea breeze carries over the water to cool things down. That, however, was not the case on that warm Wednesday night. After boarding the Hornblower Infinity, it is an effort to find a decent spot to enjoy the show. First, guests have to make it past the seemingly endless bar and buffet lines to snag a seat or standing space. VIP members made sure to keep their section free of non-VIPs and were comfortably seated up front. The double decker venue allowed for couples to hold hands close and either stare at the music to come or at each other. Again, the crowd was older yet vibrant with activity. If only the younger generation could break into this smooth jazz realm, there are fans out there who are yearning for it.
For some reason, this crowd was louder than ever. Many of the women were the loudest with their entourages with drinks in hand. Break out the Cosmos seemed to be the mission. The small younger crowd (five at most) kept things mellow and were obviously there for the music, not the cruise. Everyone was sweating, there was no breeze onboard, unfortunately. On the river jet skiers, sailors and people wandering the docks were enjoying the summer evening as the ship took off. All of the engines were deafening but eventually quieted down once the boat was on the river and away from the docks. Lady Liberty looked absolutely swell all aglow in an exotic summer mist. Sunlight came pouring in as the last moments of the day dwindled. A Corona in hand is advisable. Once the Infinity made it to Liberty Island, a fleet of sailboats covered the area in what looked like a sailing race taking place.
Rick Braun was the first man to come out as he chatted happily with some fans sporting his trademark fedora, a lime green t-shirt and matching sunglasses. He held his trumpet close. After the announcer finished his introduction (albeit too quiet to hear among the guests shouting left and right) all three musicians came out playing immediately with cheers to follow. Whalum, with his sax on full force, sported a fedora as well with a black vest and sunglasses while Norman was the epitome of cool in his complete white attire with his black guitar. A flourish of horns took things off as the funky smooth jazz mix came in. Listeners had to love that trumpet and saxophone harmony paired with the slick plucks of the electric guitar. Each one of the men were all smiles and encouraged clapping from the get go.
Their music that night was a mix of their classic smooth jazz style infused with funk and soul. A smooth twang and quick lilting all around made each song an exciting one. Each musician had their own little dance that kept them in their own groove. Solos went down the line with each working their magic at hand. Rick was by far the emphatic player of the night. His trumpet was clear and it’s quick patter of tones made it ideal for looks of awe. It only boosted the excitement of the event. Norman did some scatting and sang along to get people moving in their seats with his guitar skills. Kirk, however, was the smoothest cat of the show with his deep saxophone tones that made listeners get goosebumps. Their rendition of Billie Jean as an instrumental piece was a special touch.
Even with a rocky boat, they kept on playing strong. With a high trumpet sound blending in nicely with the dulcet guitar, a contrast of engaging music was created. Each leaned on one another to make some great tunes. They respected each his craft and obviously enjoyed playing together. Almost every song ended with a tremendous applause from the crowd who were having the time of their lives. At this point of the set, the three men moved forward to a relaxed soul jam session. Norman’s guitar stayed fluid with an energetic rhythm with horns as support. Showmanship among the horns was notable. Kirk and Rick often leaned back to back and crossed their horns in a stellar stage presence. Kirk even went out into the crowd to enhance the cool vibes. Fellow keyboardist John Stoddart, drummer Marcus Finnie and bassist Braylon Lacy were up there in talent as well, each having their moment to shine. John even sang beautifully with his organ power and Braylon had a way with his hands on some exemplary solos.
Rick unleashed a rich trumpet solo with a swift patter of the horn. As things sped up, he revealed his full power of his skills often going to a extremely high place with his sounds. It was amazing to hear what those lungs to bellow out. He held his breath for moments that resulted in silence from the crowd in built up anticipation. His face was often red afterwards as he grinned. Rick even took a second to share his next big adventure. He will be hosting a European River Cruise on the beautiful Danube in August 2018 with musical guests Peter White and Vincent Ingala! What an experience that will be.
Norman’s guitar, while skillfully played, was often drowned out by the rude chatter of the crowd. Thankfully, that did not phase Mr. Brown at all, he was in musical bliss. Each got their due. It was a smooth journey as the boat made its round past Battery Park. Rick kept the control of the band with his band leader persona and his hand motions to transition between songs. Snapping of the fingers ensued as a bluesy tune was introduced with an echo modification added to the horns. Their music shifted gears from the blues to go back to that funky realm. That was when the funniest part of the evening came to be. Every female, mostly single and unmarried, wearing clothing that was not ideal for their age began to dance. Not only did they dance with noise, but they were screaming and shouting all the while. Many looked on with envy while some looked on in confusion. These older ladies were obviously trying to relive past days of youth. Kirk took advantage of this and danced in between them with his saxophone blaring.
Upon returning to the stage the three men started a synchronized dance which fueled the clapping of the growing raucous 50+ crowd. Rick, Kirk and Norman sang together and started a chant of funk among the audience. Norman took the stage all for himself as Rick and Kirk dispersed. He gave listeners a taste of his traditional skills in lingering and wailing guitar. His finger plucking and twang focus was as good as ever along with his shocking speed. Every wail that popped up here and there was welcomed with a shout of appreciation. He ended his solo by playing his guitar behind his head as any master of the instrument would. That received a standing ovation.
Finally all three men returned front and center and gave listeners a special cover of Shake Your Body (Down To The Ground) which got every fan, young and old, moving. It was too addicting not to sway or tap a foot to. Everyone was loving it. My Girl even got thrown in there as the boat began to approach the docks. BWB made sure to make every second on that yacht a music filled one. It was a perfect way to end the ride.
Rick, Kirk and Norman were simply amazing that evening. Their musicianship as well as their ability to keep the event fun are what makes great performances remembered. There was a reason the venue was a packed house. Every soul on that cruise ship were there for a good time and that got more than what they needed. BWB, together, are men who will continue to keep this smooth jazz pride alive both on land or at sea.