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Cruisin’ Alaska, Groovin’ on Jazz
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Stu Parcher

Scenery-wise it’s hard to beat cruising along Alaska’s Inside Passage from Vancouver, BC, to Seward, AK, followed by a rail trip to Denali National Park and continuing on to Fairbanks. The vistas were, in a word, breathtaking.

   Jazz-wise it’s hard to beat the band package on this July’s JazzSea Cruise, consisting of Buck Creek, Grand Dominion, Fulton Street and Bob Schulz Frisco jazz bands plus the Tex Wyndham-Noel Kaletsky Trio.

   There’s little new to be said about the Fulton Street and Bob Schulz aggregations -- good solid trad jazz from Schulz with strong Turk Murphy and Bob Scobey influences; more mainstream jazz from the Fulton gang.

   But we were especially anticipating the other groups’ performances. First, we wondered how Buck Creek would cope without their popular clarinetist John Skillman, who stayed home recuperating from a heart attack suffered in late June plus effects of a hernia. (Co-leader Jim Ritter dedicated Lil Armstrong’s tune “My Heart” to the ailing Skillman, remarking in an aside that Ms. Armstrong also wrote a tune called “My Hernia,” but it never caught on.)

   The band’s solution was simple. They borrowed reed men from the other groups, or, when they were all otherwise engaged, played on without one.

   Noel Kaletsky, a hot player, seemed to fit in especially well with the Buck Creek style. From Connecticut, he leads his own quartet there and tours with Wyndham’s Rent Party Revelers and Tex’s Trio. He’d seen Buck Creek at festivals and knows some of their book (and did well improvising on the rest). He got a warm welcome from the crowd after his first solo as the fill-in, then offered an especially fine soprano sax contribution on “Wild Man Blues.”

   Gerry Green from Grand Dominion and Kim Cusak from Frisco were the other subs, and did superb jobs, although there’s no replacing Skillman in producing that special Buck Creek sound.

   Leon Oakley, the talented new trumpet man for Grand Dominion, continues to meld with the group, absorbing the book and the styles of the other musicians. He brings an impressive resume, playing with Turk Murphy from 1968 to 1979. He then joined Vince Saunders’ South Frisco JB playing the two-cornet San Francisco style, and helped launch it as one of the premier festival bands of its time. South Frisco disbanded in 1998. Bob Pelland, Grand Dominion’s leader, said Oakley had played two festivals and one other gig with the band prior to the cruise. Leon has committed to play the majority of the band’s appearances through the end of the year and will make a decision about his future at that time. Here’s hoping he remains on board.

   Oakley said he has usually played with a “loud” band, and came to the Dominions thinking they were the same, but learned quickly that they play some quite subtle tunes. The trumpet man displayed his own subtleties in a nifty, soft, muted solo on “Atlanta Blues.”

   Kaletsky and bassist Steve Bulmer are pleasant additions to Tex Wyndham’s shows, which feature the leader’s narration on songs and songwriters of the first three decades of the past century. Tex plays piano and some cornet and sings the lyrics (promising to include the verse and all choruses of each tune).

   On this cruise the trio was integrated into the regular band rotation schedule instead of Tex being an add-on artist playing in the piano bar. Themes of his shows included tunes associated with Bix Beiderbecke and songs written by Walter Donaldson. As always, Tex concentrated on the “standards,” those great tunes which became standards because they are great.

   Other notes: On one of the formal nights Jim Armstrong, in full tuxedo regalia, served champagne to the Buck Creek players while they were on the bandstand. He took the mike to explain that it was Jim and Vicki Armstrong’s second wedding anniversary. On a similar cruise just after their wedding, Buck Creek had serenaded the couple with Louis Armstrong’s “Someday,You’ll Be Sorry.” This night Jimmy answered that sentiment with a vociferous “WRONG!”

   Bob Pelland broke a long-standing Grand Dominion rule to never repeat a number one night to appease an insistent requester who had missed the band’s earlier performance of “Honky Tonk Town.” So fans were treated to a reprise of this band’s patented hard-driving, up-tempo version of this rouser.

   Buck Creek drew the frigid, windswept aft navigation deck as their venue for the sail-away festivities from Sitka, Alaska. Ritter called for “Anchors Aweigh” to start the set. Someone asked what key it was in. Pianist Bill Richards quickly quipped “key of sea.”
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