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Back Roads Beat

2007 North Sea Jazz Cruise: Day 2-3

By Published: July 12, 2007
Day 1 | Day 2-3 | Day 4 | Day 5 | Day 6 | Day 7 | Day 8 | Day 9-12

Comparisons are inevitable when traveling.

It's wondering why a gallon of gas costing $4 in the Land Of The Free is less than a dime under the crushing Banana Republic leadership of Tukmenistan. Or why the world's only superpower confiscates our water bottles when Japan has nifty new machines that analyze and literally give the green light in a second.

The question for those aboard the inaugural North Sea Jazz Cruise on Day 2 is if their pricey 11-day Scandinavian voyage will be a better experience than the Copenhagen Jazz Festival, being dangled and denied in front of them the same day the ship embarks.

Timing necessitates the unfortunate coincidence since the chartered Holland America ship Rotterdam is scheduled to arrive in its namesake city for the North Sea Jazz Festival starting July 13. So while the cruise may live up to its promise of being the most ambitious ever by Jazz Cruises LLC, it's very much "the other event" for the huge influx of jazz fans in the city.

I decide not to find out.

My thing is the unknown, the different and the obscure, and previous trips to Denmark have taught me the Copenhagen festival is a mass of madness (albeit the very best kind if you're good in crowds) and I'm much happier hearing lesser-known locals play three hours away at the Aarhus Jazz Festival, which starts when everybody in Copenhagen is packing up and recovering from their hangovers. Still, it seems cruel passengers are spending two days here and leaving just as the festival gets going.

The obvious alternative is soaking up everything on board. Which gets off to a bad start.

Staying up for the late-night shows on Day 1 meant struggling to get up and be in the Explorations Cafe (biggest library at sea, internet cafe and 24-hour espresso) at 9 a.m. for "Java And Jazz," promoted as 90 minutes of music and coffee. The cafe was nearly empty - not a lot of people seem willing to pay up to 75 cents a minute for Internet access or $3 for lattes when massive quantities of free food are available in some form 24 hours a day throughout the ship. It was also quiet, save for the low-volume recordings by featured musicians normally playing through the overhead speakers. I stuck around and nobody showed, which I figured might be some first-morning mixup since the young woman working the coffee stand didn't know what I was asking about. Still, being rather sleepy the rest of the day was an irritating reminder.

I took a quick last look around Copenhagen late in the morning, gritting my teeth and paying the $10 cab fare from the pier to downtown each way since the terminal is in no man's land. Mostly the purpose was picking up up a few essentials they charge extra for onboard like Diet Coke (the prices aren't, in fairness, the highway robbery rates of some bargain cruises).

A master and a man on a mission

Another comparative dilemma of travel: the comfort of well-known excellence or the possibly disappointing discovery of the unknown?

Being back at 1 p.m. was a must since drummer Alex Riel, one of Denmark's longtime jazz icons, was performing with his trio and guest alto saxophonist Benjamin Koppel in the Blue Note Jazz Club, a small observation lounge with a panoramic view from the top fore of the ship. The trio features young gun pianist Heine Hansen and upright bassist Jesper Lundgaard, a melodic master whose reputation may equal Riel's. Koppel's another young gun who's already got an impressive variety of straight-ahead, free jazz and symphonic projects to his credit, including his Nordic Design collaboration with Phil Woods (any theme from that region is a pretty surefire winner for me).

But dropping my bags in my cabin, I paused because it became obvious I'd been booked next to a noisy neighbor.

Somebody was playing a saxophone.

To almost any passenger on almost any cruise, this would be an insufferable invasion of privacy. On this kind of trip it's like winning the lottery.

The tone was restrained enough not be grating, but I couldn't begin to guess who it might be from the timbre or material. The practice riffs were a soothing tenor growl, if not showing any particular flair in technique, with the occasional squeak or sour note when an obvious attempt was being made to stretch some concept. Some seemed vaguely similar to the Marcus Miller concert the previous night and, while I figured there's no way Kurt Anderson or any other musician in Miller's band were in the lower commonfolk cabins, it didn't seem outlandish it might be some assistant or other person working with one of the main groups.

That thought became a tantalizing reality when, after about 10 minutes and I was ready to head out, an acoustic guitar joined in and a nicely crafted unplugged duet of "Mercy, Mercy, Mercy" leaked through the bulkhead. After hearing plenty of fusion/funk versions from bands, it was a refreshing change-of-pace first. The obvious urge to knock and meet the neighbor(s) was tempered by not wanting to interrupt people who might not want to be disturbed by yet another fan or might be reluctant to play again if they felt awkward about being monitored by a journalist next door. Ultimately, common sense dictated waiting, since it's a long cruise and I'd likely find out quickly enough by chance.

Riel's always hit the mark with what I think of as bar talk among Apple Computer engineers, very smart guys with a hint of mischief, and his trio didn't let down during their 90 minutes. Riel earned his stripes on the "almost forgotten" composition "Idaho" with a cymbal-roll heavy exchange of fours and extended solo complimenting them with bits of his kit one at a time, ending in a full workout across it.

Koppel shone over and over, much like a Woods hitting his prime in the new millennium, reaching into a deep bag of subtle growls, shakes, alternate tones and other nuances to bring character to those lengthy and scholarly quick runs that mark the classic master player (an exception was his rather dull and straight "Over The Rainbow"). Lundgaard got his center-stage glory on a tune whose name I missed and whose technique falls in that broad range of dense brilliance that's so easy for me to enjoy and so difficult to describe proficiently (no point trying to fake it).

At 4 p.m. came what was guaranteed to be the most commanding and well-attended horn performance of the cruise.

That's a nice jazz way of describing the mandatory lifeboat drill, something of a nuisance where everybody dons their lifejackets and goes to their assigned boat, where they learn this is most definitely not the Titanic. The Rotterdam has lifeboats for more than 1,800 people—well in excess of those on board—and they can lower even if all kinds of things. They float even when completely flooded and have satellite locator beacons ensuring they'll be found by rescuers. It actually ends up being somewhat reassuring and useful, since there's been actual cruise ship accidents lately and we won't be in the most sedate of waters. There was only one real snafu - passengers touring Copenhagen for the day were told they needed to be back on board at 5:30 p.m. to ensure departure on time.

Nonetheless, there was personal motivation to be at the drill: I wanted to see my neighbor when they called his or her name on the call sheet.

It was a woman who answer the cabin call, but in one of those of those clumsy misfortunes of life, people were shuffling around in front of me (rule is women and children at the front, men at the rear) and I couldn't see through them.

Easily remedied. I hustled a bit quicker than everyone else back to my cabin and lingered with my card out at the door. About 30 seconds later a man and woman perhaps in their 40s appeared and vanished into the room. They didn't look like anyone I'd seen with any of the bands.

Knock. Knock. Knock.

The tenor belonged to the guy, Zachary Silveria, 45, a diving expert from Tracy, a city between San Francisco and Sacramento. Hearty and husky, with a camouflage cap, tank top and music tattoos wrapping around both biceps, he described himself as a self-taught amateur working with rhythm backing tapes. But he's chasing musicians around the world in pursuit of dream whose time is growing dangerously short.

Becoming a professional smooth jazz musician before losing his sight to a degenerative eye disease.

"My grandfather played for Lawrence Welk, thus he left a saxophone for me when he died," he said. "I kept staring at it, staring at it, staring at it, and one day I picked it up and said 'I'm going to find music before I lose my sight.'"

Why smooth jazz?

"I think because of the instruments," Silveria said, noting he listened to the likes of Stevie Wonder and other Motown artists growing up. "I actually started listening to smooth jazz radio because as you get older you change a little bit. Boney James was the first concert about eight years ago. I had no clue who Coltrane or Miles was. Most guys (that do) start in high school."

He sold his dive shop and so far has invested $150,000 and three years' effort into a studio, recording virtually all parts of a four-song demo CD and traveling to meet as many well-known smooth jazz artists as possible. He asks players to sign his horn and, after some initial nervousness, about joining jam sessions.

"There was a huge theater jam session (on one cruise) where a guy tried to stop me and I said, 'Hey, I'm with the band and I just kind of snuck my way back," he said. "I met the guy who does 'Riffs' for XM Radio who was looking for radio material. The sound guy was about to kick us out when Nick Colionne came out and he said, 'Cool,' shook my hand and said 'Everybody's welcome.' Ever since then I've been trying to get on every cruise I can and jam with them."

Silveria met Michael Paulo during a cruise from Galveston, Texas, about two years ago, who emphasized the value of a demo.

"He told me when I jammed with him on the last ship, 'Hey, get a CD, send me a CD and I'll try to help you out,'" Silveria said.

The demo proves Silveria capable of joining a jam without embarrassing himself or the group, but shows no standout examples of technique, tone or improvisational concept. The songs are far too short—three are barely a minute each; the exception is "All Jam" (get MP3)—to establish bona fides. Also, as with most one-man-band efforts, the backing tracks wind up deterring the feeling of professionalism. When I mentioned this and suggested he bring his guitar friend and others into the studio, he was receptive and said he has a more experimental recording he's been reluctant to let people hear so far, but agreed to loan me a copy. If so, I'll see if an updated opinion is in order.

Progressing forward, rocking back

If Marcus Miller's opening night concert revived fun-filled fusion memories from high school, the Day 2 main performance by Roy Hargrove inspired thoughts of the caffeinated intellectualism of college.

The trumpeter was in his progressive straight-ahead mode on the first of two consecutive nights of being the featured artist. It is, in my opinion, his stronger side, the kind of young lion stuff I associate with favorites of the early '90s like the Marsalis and Harper brothers. The 90-minute set didn't disappoint, giving plenty of space to each of about a half a dozen songs whose titles I don't know (sadly, I confess there's plenty of times I rely on set lists if I can get them). Photos were once again banned, so my Blurry Bootleg Of The Day comes as they took their final bow with Miller playing host by rousing the crowd.

Hargrove spent most of the evening playing dense and high, but also conceded much of the stage time to saxophonist Justin Robinson???????, who seemed to be playing more aggressively in the same manner. Robinson's quick fingerings were a balanced mix of links and jumps, seldom needed to repeat to build tension and explored a greater part of the scale, including one just before the encore where he took on a rugged growl that slided, rather than stepped, from note to note.

The weakness of the show, to the degree there was one, was the rhythm players were playing more vigorously than interactively, which is great for allowing soloists to stand out but falls below that top category of special in a sense of satisfaction. But, as one of my rough notes states, "it's a good contemporary straighthead package where the beat made the show as accessible and the solos as challenging as listeners wanted."

I dropped in briefly on the late Day 2 gig by saxophonist James Carter in the top-level lounge and he seemed to be blowing the doors off, but the place was absolutely packed, smoky and I couldn't wedge my way close enough to get even a glimpse of the stage. He's got a bunch of gigs coming, so I retreated and listened to some of the second night of collaborations between saxophonist Frank Morgan and pianist Bill Mays. Because I already ranted about their Day 1 gig and to save space, I and everybody else I talked to agreed it was as note-for-note captivating as the first.

Day 3: Some Sour Notes In Comparison

Saturday morning I again fought off the drowsiness to make the 9 a.m. "Java and Jazz" event and again nothing resembling a band was there.

This time a few people besides me were asking and again nobody seemed sure of the answer. But about an hour later a bypasser interrupted an inquiry and said he's been told something I might have figured out by carefully rereading the day's event bulletin, where a detailed description appeared for the first time: "A wonderful selection of music featuring the world-reknowned musicians we feature onboard"—then, after a few sentences about their lovely coffee and tea—"and while you're there, you may just bump into one of them. (my emphasis added)"


Considering their albums are playing pretty much all of the time anyway, I have no idea why this a daily featured activity. But sleeping in is no longer an issue.

The Rotterdam's first port of call was Warnemunde, a German small fishing town fairly close to Berlin. Those walking off immediately get a heavy dose of exaggeratedly colorful native kitsch along the streets of countless brat and beerstein souvenir shops, but walk a few hundred yards past the central square and the more authentic subdued beauty can be seen. Both are appealing in their ways and a German music festival offered extra spice for those on the packed tourist seawalk.

Hargrove returned for the main evening concert, this time in funk mode with Carter. After Hargrove's winner and the tantalizing sneak preview of Carter the night before, anticipation was high.

Satisfaction was not.

The first half of the 90-minute show, minus Carter, had plenty of groove and volume, but not much soul as solos seemed to be the safe professionalism of easy hooks and repeat tension builds. The crowd was more into it and that's legit given the band's sheer level of base talent. A few rumors were circulating Hargrove was unhappy about something—maybe it was his status in the billing or his discs not being in the CD shop—and it may have been a factor.

Carter elevated the second half with a big jump in verbosity, screaming the upper registers regularly and keeping the storyline tasty with repeating too many points. Miller picked up his bass clarinet for a horn jam with Hargrove and Carter on "Hijack," and they seemed to loosen up with the aid of a frenzied storm by drummer Montez Coleman.

But as the momentum built on stage, it was unfortunately doing so on the ship.

Rugged waters began causing the ship to roll shortly after its departure midway through the show and by 10:10 p.m. was bad enough people were leaving in notable numbers. I'm prone to seasickness and was among them, since the stage is the worst area possible (high and at an end) and my cabin is low and center. The harshness continued and the possibility of anything further was nonexistent. This, of course, is the very real potential downside of even the best intentioned cruise.

Coming on Day 4: Heaven and Hell - Kirk Whalum, David Sanborn and lingering acts of God.

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