Despite the questions some cruise ship passengers ask ("how high above sea level is this town?"), learning opportunities are prominent for people supposedly on a relaxing vacation.
Lectures, multi-day classes and even full-blown university courses can soak up time traditionally meant for algae facials and chocolate buffets. Some universities charter ships long-term for courses or as campus housing for students (where was that when I lived on cereal in large closet with a slightly crazy roommate?). Make fun of traditional subjects like cooking, pottery and computers, but medical and dental professionals can also get continuing education credit in-between port calls.
On the last day at sea for the inaugural North Sea Jazz Cruise, it was time for some closing lessons and final exams.
A discussion and evening concert by piano legend McCoy Tyner held master-class promise. Amateur players who brought instruments were tuning up for a spontaneous decision to hold a late-night jam session in the upper-level Crow's Nest lounge with bassist and cruise host Marcus Miller. Also, on a personal note, I finally sat down and got to know the most prolific and unheralded musician on the ship.
Miller got the day's music going with an early afternoon concert on the main stage in the Queen's Lounge. I wandered in about 1:45 p.m. and his band was playing the Beethoven composition "Moonlight Sonota" that made a favorable impression during his opening-night concert. Nice as that tune was, here it was getting much the same introduction and what sounded like mostly the same playing, which is when I took in the rest of the show as a pleasant background presence while I cranked away on the laptop.
Miller started the discussion around 2:45 p.m. by introducing Tyner as the second of two pianists, Hancock being the other, whose tone is recognizable after hearing only a couple notes of a song (personal aside: sorry, but Chick Corea and several other names come immediately to mind). Part of the reason, Miller said, is Tyner continues to explore new territory decades after many musicians would be resting of their laurels.
"After the Coltrane period you didn't stop growing," said Miller, who calls the 1976 string ensemble project Fly With The Wind a "killer" example ( free samples). "A lot of guys, they would have kept playing John Coltrane for the rest of their life, even after he passed. But you kept going."
"It's like a lesson," Tyner said. "It's like going to school."
The best stories involved lessons from his youth in Philadelphia, when he started playing his mother's piano at the age of 13.
"Her piano was in her beauty shop," he said. "I remember having jam sessions in her shop. There'd be this tenor player sitting next to some lady under a dryer."
Bud Powell lived in the city and, sometime after Tyner turned 16, he said one of the major early milestones of his life occurred when "we followed him and got him to play" at the shop.
"I think he heard the piano or something, and he stopped to listen and I said 'Oh, my goodness,'" Tyner said.
"It was not really his dexterity, but his conviction," Tyner said, "You could tell music was an important thing in his life. He was a reclusive person. He didn't say much. But when he talked you listened, especially about music."
He remained amicable, but was notably more reserved talking about himself.
"What are you doing with your life now?" Miller asked.
"Just traveling around," Tyner said.
"We were just joking backstage that we musicians run into each other more in Europe than the United States," Miller said. "How is it for you in the United States? Are you still finding opportunities for you?"
"It affects me a little, but I can still go to sleep whenever I need to," Tyner said.
"Usually with jazz there's not a big budget to make these albums and you have to get it down in a timely fashion," Miller said. "Before you were a leader how many times did you walk away and say, 'Man, I wish I could have done something different?'"
"No," Tyner said, getting a round of laughter.
An audience member asked during a question-and-answer period if Tyner is left-handed and, if so, how it affects his playing. Miller speculated it's the secret behind the pianist's dominating power chords. Tyner said it makes it easier "to finish off those bad pianos," but strength isn't the secret to good performance.