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Back Roads Beat

2007 North Sea Jazz Cruise Day 6: History, Hucksters And Hancock On The High Seas

By Published: July 16, 2007
Free activities are also plentiful, even if some are obviously designed to separate passengers from their money eventually. Gambling lessons, spa seminars, digital camera lessons, wine tastings, port lectures, cooking demonstrations in a culinary center, galley tours and an exploration speech "From Scandinavia to North America" by the ship's captain were all on the day's agenda. The Rotterdam also has one of the larger libraries of any cruise ship and a DVD selection probably equal to a small video store (players are in all rooms). More active recreational possibilities included volleyball, tennis, basketball. yoga and stretch classes. For teens there's an arcade and two youth-only clubs.

But walking around the ship, it becomes clear how different passengers on this trip are from a normal cruise.

There are, for instance, a few young tots brought by parents, but I'm not sure I've seen anyone between the ages of 8 and 18. There's few groups of older passengers playing bridge and other card games at tables in the quiet lounges. Even when busy the pool deck is a quiet hum — on cheaper cruises in particular there's a non-stop barrage of party music and games like the hairiest chest concert, and clusters of families and buddies gathered around coolers brought on board to avoid the ship's fees.

Casino activity seems light and audiences are light to nonexistent at the non-jazz musical venues. For many of the ship's regular musicians this is a dream cruise, because they're not performing at all, still getting paid, and spending the voyage getting to meet and hear the jazz musicians passengers are paying dearly for.

Crew making the food, always one of the heaviest promoted aspects of any cruise, are almost certainly getting a nasty jolt to their regular but rigorous schedule. One of the executive chefs said dining habits are notably different, with almost nobody at breakfast and a rush during the midnight meal since nearly everyone is attending late-night shows and sleeping late. It's hard to tell if they've made any adjustments to compensate, but the late night serving line seems to be down to scraps after the first hour of a two-hour stint, right about the time a lot of people are leaving the evening's final music sets.

The normal schedule will continue when the Rotterdam docks for the North Sea Jazz Festival since the fare includes admission to that event and the ship's cabins are serving as lodging (an unbelievably nice benefit, since vast numbers of people are stuck making two- to three-hour rides on a combination of trams and trains from surrounding cities). Obviously the ship will be deserted in the evenings and experience a crush of activity around 2:30-3 a.m. when everyone returns. Since the late-night serving line closes at 2 a.m., it's not hard to imagine the room service crew carrying a knee-buckling number of trays during what would normally be a quiet part of the shift since it's the only food option available 24 hours a day. (The late menu, incidentally, is pathetic with the only substantive fare being two types of omelets, a burger (no fries, only chips) and a club sandwich).

Introducing...Guys Who Shouldn't Need Introductions

Speaking of the festival, this is a good time to mention The Grid.

This all-important chart is the guide to who's playing where each day of the festival. The headliners who require special tickets that sell out quickly despite their significant cost are in large print at the top. Underneath are 16 rows of artists whose stature is represented in steadily smaller font sizes. To cite an example in descending thirds, David Sanborn, E.S.T., Stefano Bollani, the Dimitar Bodurov Trio and the Hypnotic Brass Ensemble progress from second to last the opening night grid.

The listings are not a reflection of pure talent.

But as I wrote in a feature about the festival two years ago, performers near the bottom of the grid often play to half- or near- empty rooms, which personally is a source of both pleasure (away from the melee, intimacy with the players) and pain (so many people missing things like the Best Of Young Dutch Jazz competition).

Two players aboard the ship, performing on the same day at the festival in a lower-tier room with a theme of "Introducing..." showed why they're worthy of much better.

But the first performer of the afternoon at sea, accordionist Stian Carstensen, doesn't even have festival billing, a curiosity since he's not one of the musicians doing a same-day on/off gig from their home city. Not knowing the grids at the time, it never occurred to me to ask if he's involved with the festival or just along for the ride.

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