2007 North Sea Jazz Cruise Day 7: Taking Aim At The Audience

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They traveled 500 miles in one day to come aboard for 90 minutes and play one of the best gigs of the cruise. Their reward? A near-empty lounge with probably the lowest audience.

Two members of the German hyper-avant trio [em] made the long trip to Hamburg where Holland America Line's Rotterdam was docked as part of the inaugural North Sea Jazz Cruise. Winner of the 2007 "Most Promising International Newcomer of The Year Ronnie Scott's Jazz Award, their music is something The Bad Plus (a personal fav) might tackle if they grew up with Wagner (ditto) instead of ABBA (not so much) But a top-level lounge maybe 20 percent full at the 4 p.m. start actually dwindled to a crowd that would fit in a modest living room by the end.

"What happened here was amazing," said Miecea Ciurdar, a passenger from Bucharest, Romania. "There are no American listeners here."

Jazz is obviously a common passion for the 900 passengers willing to pay several thousand dollars to cruise through Scandinavia from July 5-12 before docking in the ship's namesake city for the three-day North Sea Jazz Festival. But there's clearly defined lines of interest—sometimes contentious—as some listeners and even a few participants say most aboard seem more interested in familiar comforts like Marcus Miller and Dee Dee Bridgewater instead of being open to new and more creative artists. Strong arguments also exist at the other extreme from those questioning if certain performers are really true to the spirit of jazz, not to mention the deeper insight into an artist's work by hearing it repeatedly in concentrated doses..

Not a new argument to be sure, but one magnified with the intense focus on jazz within the tiny village-like confines of a 778-foot passenger ship. It's easy to question why beyond-capacity crowds pile in to hear Miller play what seems like the same songs from his new album for the fifth time while there's plenty of vacant seats a few decks above for an exotic African guitarist who at times stole the stage during a solid Herbie Hancock show. Or why passengers left in droves from Medeski, Martin and Wood's main-stage concert.

Or why the crowd seemingly having the most fun are taking in arguably the least musically artistic performer.

Nightly shows of tire(less/some) showtunes and standards by the unnamed "ship pianist" in a small, nondescript lounge featuring busker-quality ivory mashing supporting blaring vocals with an impertinent regard for pitch. All he did was entertain the only audience regularly grooving and interacting more than superficially.

"We are only a couple of cheese farmers from Holland," declared Klaas Bloem, "We are only a couple of cheese farmers from Holland," declared Klaas Bloem to an inquiry, my introduction to the retired Air Force officer dressed in a light-pink button-down shirt and dark pink pants. He, his wife and another couple they met on board look like frequent cruisers who spend every night in similar lounges, but he said this is his first voyage and he's a longtime jazz fan who's finding too many performers are straying from the fundamentals of what makes the genre great in search of personal glory.

"At times it seems like they are just playing and not listening to each other," he said.

The other major problem is an exact opposite—too much repetition not just by artists appearing multiple times, but within songs doing little but repeating a riff, Bloem said. On the new heavy fusion "Blast" being played at or near the beginning of shows, Bloem said he's hearing little but the bassist slap the same vamp throughout.

"If you play that 36 times, I'm bored," he said. Listen to someone like Bach for 36 passages, he said, and there's no repeating phrases despite a maintaining of conceptual consistency. Ideal jazz, Bloem argues, should take a theme and develop it broadly and collaboratively, while remaining true to the roots of the idea.

The arguments of too much repetition and too little discipline generate their own rebuttal from those saying it's also an example of not keeping the ears and mind fully open. Dan Brown, Miller's guitarist and music coordinator for the cruise, said listeners can gain more knowledge and enjoyment hearing the best musicians several times than the same exposure to lesser talents, even if it's a new experience.

"When these cruises are put together to be cost efficient they have a core unit that plays for all the artists that come on," he said. "So when you have someone like Marcus that's really dominant...(listeners) are going to be more aware of the sameness as compared to the next tier (in recognition) down."

Appreciating such performances means listening for differences in technique as well as solos over multiple takes, where first-tier artists like Miller earn their reputation, Brown said.

"I would rather hear Marcus and Marcus' band too much than hear the next tier down too much," he said.

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