2007 North Sea Jazz Cruise: Day 1

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Even for organizers who've done jazz cruises worldwide, this is a whole new level.



More bands. More diversity than the mostly straight-ahead acts usually booked. And a ship that a couple of weeks ago was flooded top to bottom returning from Antarctica in the world's harshest sea.



The inaugural North Sea Jazz Cruise, a 13-day Scandinavian voyage from July 5-17 ending with the festival itself in The Netherlands, is promoted as the most ambitious ever by the longtime company Jazz Cruises LLC. But the so-far smooth sailing of the five-star charter voyage masks the maelstrom of unheard of challenges workers are facing non-stop.



"I've done jazz cruises all over the world, but nothing like this," said Gary Baldassari, production manager for Jazz Cruises. "It's almost like we're running a small war."



Eight of the 14 headliner bands embark and disembark in a single day, compared to the normal routine of having a more limited number onboard the entire trip, he said. Many have unique power needs due to their equipment and home countries, adding to the complication of an unusual on-board ship current and wires corroded from the flooding that ship staff are replacing continuously between shows.



The ship's default current is slightly different than normal European standards, Baldassar said, making the B3s and some other keyboards by bands such as Medeski, Martin and Wood play too fast. Of bigger concern, of course, is not frying the large assortment of avant-garde and vintage gear being rushed on and off. The latter often has to occur within an hour after a show because of ship sailing times.



But his war metaphor is proving opposite of the results for passengers who warmly responded to a predictable but dynamic fusion stage jam by bassist and host Marcus Miller, and a more sedate—and accomplished—duet of standards in a lounge by pianist Bill Mays and saxophonist Frank Morgan. Hints of the voyage's promised up-close intimacy were seen by things such as running into trumpeter Roy Hargove at the shore excursion desk. He didn't want to talk just then, but offered his cabin number and an "I'll be around" to his questioner before each hurried separately toward their destinations—each figuring out their way to the Mays/Morgan gig, as it turned out.



The lineup includes McCoy Tyner, MMW with John Scofield, Herbie Hancock, James Carter, David Sanborn and others generally playing a main evening concert, with two shows after by different artists in separate and smaller lounges, plus a nightly after-midnight pool deck party with D.J. Logic. A few daytime shows, autograph signings and discussions, a Sunday morning gospel hour with Kirk Whalum are among the other scheduled activities.



So despite some miserable delays and hitches getting myself aboard, it's hard feeling much grief during the opening hours of what surely will be the most luxurious experience I'll have in my marathon hunt for jazz in the world's most unlikely and unusual places. A single cabin costs $4,500—including a hefty IAJE discount— which covers concerts mornings, afternoons and nights, a bunch of recreational pastimes and something like eight meal opportunities a day (plus 24-hour free room service). Rather annoyingly, they do charge for Diet Cokes and lattes—and internet access that makes these posts possible is $20 an hour.



Some personal notes and disclosure: The rules are no photos by anyone, including the press, during the main shows, so while I snuck a blurry snapshot during Marcus Miller's opening night gig most of what you'll see may be occurring elsewhere. On the other hand, it's musicians on a stage that looks much like any other, so hopefully the rest is more interesting. Also, this is far from a newbie's love letter rant about his seductive surroundings, as I'm a much more knowledgeable about the cruise industry than the music scene (sad, I know, given the focus of this piece). I've spent more than a decade reporting and editing in the 30,000- person town of Juneau, Alaska, where the nearly 1 million annual cruise ship visitors are perhaps the biggest single controversy due to their immense importance and impacts on a city some say is now a Disneyesque facade of its former self. Both sides seem to think I'm heavily biased against them, so hopefully it means my perspective is squarely in the middle. Finally, my trip has been mostly about seeking out the lesser-knowns of jazz and there's a tendency to do so here (i.e. the person playing the most gigs is the unnamed "ship pianist," who likely is getting very little love since he's competing against two simultaneous late-night headliners), although the essentials of the main players are obviously covered.



The Setup



Seeking to dazzle immediately and continuously, a model cruise comes to the gangway in the most lavish of makeup.


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