For the past few years, Eric Marienthal has been the Music Director of The Smooth Jazz Cruise and Blue Note at Sea cruise. Each cruise program involves planning 200 hours of music and shuffling performers between shows of their own to shows that feature them in cameo roles to group shows and more. In 2020, Eric directed three cruises in a row and will do the same in 2022. He does this job with amazing professionalism, skill and grace. Being a top player with a wide background of musical accomplishments gives Eric the credibility that is essential to the job.
From the time Eric graduated Berklee College of Music with the highest proficiency rating awarded by the school to his influential contribution to Jeff Lorber’s Fusion band to his Grammy winning turns with Chick Corea, Eric has excelled and is known as one of the most versatile first call saxophonists in the genre. Beyond that, he is also a wonderful leader and his shows are always a must-see event everywhere he performs, especially on the cruises.
Recently, Michael Lazaroff, our Executive Director, who works with Eric on the programming for the cruises, had the opportunity to pose some questions about Eric’s music, life and position with our cruise programs.
Lazaroff: Eric, though we speak on the phone several times a week, it has been over a year since we have seen each other … unless Zoom counts. How have you been during this difficult period?
Marienthal: It has certainly been an interesting transition. In 2019, I was on the road over 200 days and performed across 4 continents. I had to show my I.D. before my wife would let me in the house! Needless to say, that number was a bit smaller last year! But I am very fortunate to have my own recording studio so most of the records I’m asked to play on and the TV and film work that I normally do up in Hollywood, I am able to record right here at home. I also have an ArtistWorks online saxophone school with about 500 students currently enrolled and I do weekly online masterclasses and shows as well. Plus, as you well know, with all the cruise-related activities we did last year along with the initial planning for the cruises in ’22, it hardly seems as though we skipped a beat!
Lazaroff: In late 2020, we embarked upon an ambitious plan to record special music shows for our jazz fans. For a while you were the Executive Producer of Saturday Night with Marcus Miller & Friends. How much fun was that?
Marienthal: It was incredibly fun and just an amazing experience! Add some gentle swaying to the stage and it would have felt like we were back on the ship! We used a warehouse in San Diego that had essentially been converted into an enormous soundstage. Our goal was to create shows that had some of that special energy and camaraderie that we have on the cruise. Our online audiences let us know how happy they were to see the artists that you and Marcus brought in and having Alonzo Bodden there as comic and co-host was the icing on the cake. ECP’s Production Manager Brian Rachko and his team made everything run seamlessly and look and sound absolutely beautiful. I was very proud of how well those shows came together and how safely we were able to do them.
Lazaroff: Our Marcus Miller shows featured George Benson, Gregory Porter, War and many others. What is your fondest memory of the series?
Marienthal: Each of the shows we did holds great memories for me. I am a huge George Benson fan and when I was in college I probably transcribed every note he played on the “Breezin'” record. That whole day of rehearsing and filming with George and seeing what a true gentleman he was and experiencing his musical mastery up close was very inspiring. It was also inspiring to get to work once again with the monumentally talented Marcus Miller. (Yes, I hope he’s reading this!) All the music was performed live and unedited and each show was under a tight timeline. Marcus’ playing, hosting, band leading, conducting off-the-cuff interviews with each guest and generally keeping it all together was really incredible and reminded me why he’s … well … Marcus Miller!
Lazaroff: You and I have likened programming a cruise to playing three dimensional chess. You have to schedule the performers and their support teams while making sure that the guests have equal access to the shows. It is quite the balancing act. What is your secret to making all this happen?
Marienthal: Lots of coffee! Seriously, it really is an exciting challenge to take on such an important job and find new and better ways to make it all work and keep things fresh. Once all the music is organized and the nuts and bolts of the schedule are laid out, I look at it over and over again from every conceivable angle to try to make sure that everyone has the best possible experience. The level of musicianship among the artists and every single band member is so high that a big part of my directing strategy is to simply not get in the way!
Lazaroff: I would be remiss if I did not ask about your special relationship with Chick Corea. When I say “Chick Corea” what comes to mind?
Marienthal: I am very proud to have been a member of the Chick Corea Elektric Band for the past 35 years. Chick was a very dear friend as well as a mentor to me and his passing has been a real shock as it has been for so many of us. Chick always inspired us to be as musically creative and inventive as we could possibly be, whether it was in the band or with our own music. We actually have a new live record coming out very soon and Chick’s playing on it is just better than ever. He was truly the Mozart of our time.
Lazaroff: Final thought, if you were to advise folks thinking about sailing on one of our cruise programs, what would be the three reasons you would share with them to entice them to sail?
Marienthal: There are a whole lot more than just three reasons that I can think of but firstly, there is a palpable sense of community and even family on our cruises, both among the musicians and the guests. You can feel it as soon as you get onboard and especially from the first downbeat of the Welcome Show. Secondly, you feel as though you are part of something massive, and it’s not just the ship! The fact that you are basically experiencing a weeklong floating jazz festival where the guests can hang out with musicians and vise versa is just … massive! And lastly, being that we will finally be able to sail again for the first time in 2 years is going to make the ’22 cruise season something extra special! Oh, and that Gerey Johnson will be buying drinks for everyone on the first night … okay, that one I made up!