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2007 North Sea Jazz Cruise Day 8: School Daze With McCoy Tyner, Amateurs And A 'Ship Pianist'

By Published: July 26, 2007
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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.

Better people than me would take advantage of the chance to hear the different nuances in what was my fourth or fifth show featuring him ( for reasons Dan Brown explains so eloquently on Day 7). But I was there to hear the discussion with Tyner immediately afterward, a last-minute addition to the itinerary after a jazz history panel and Herbie Hancock interview two days earlier got enormously positive feedback and requests for more such sessions.

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?"

"Yes."

"Jet lag?"

"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.

"I realize that with a good piano you don't need to smack it like that," he said. "You can be gentle with it."

A Master's Thesis On Peanut Butter And Roaches

Some lectures need no words.

The 4 p.m. afternoon concert in the scenic upper-level Crow's Nest lounge was Amsterdam alto saxophonist Benjamin Herman, a regular at the North Sea Jazz Festival whose early career achievement of competing with Chris Potter and Eric Alexander at the 1991 Thelonious Monk Competition is a good indicator of the company he's in (although I favor Potter as the best of that group). Herman's got that diamond-hard tone that's more smooth than growl and those chops that feel like he's taking on the masters who influenced him in double-time.

A capacity crowd, if not overflowing one, took in the show, a welcome thing since some high-quality regional artists aren't getting many listeners.

"Those are the revelations," said Bart Schneider, a St. Paul, Minn., author of the jazz-themed novel "Blue Bossa." "You see Bernard Herman and you realize he's just a star over here."

Herman's acoustic drums/bass/guitar quartet rewarded the audience with a set of aggressive progressive mainstream scholarly playing, but kept the mood loose with far more laid-back between-song comments.

"This next tune is for everybody who likes peanut butter," he said, introducing a song with a foreign- language name has to do with a phobia about the sticky stuff. Another based on the name of his record label, Roach Records, "is the result of years of torment, ladies." He said the Latin ballad "Would I Love You" was inspired by an arrangement performed by Harry James and Doris Day.

"She sings it from the original," Herman said. "She sounds like she hasn't had a boyfriend in years."

The song was a refresher on how simplicity can get an huge boost merely from strong technique. This is one of those times where my raw notes do a better job of capturing his work than my attempt at analysis: "Crisp, with a bit of extra growl to punctuate the end of some lines. I'm not really familiar with this song, but I almost feel like I can pick up the words his tone is so hard but articulate... whoa—at the end they switched this a hard four-beat screaming rock thing that turns into just a massive driving ending. Brave, but not sure this is the place for it."

Other pieces showed both individual prowess and group communication, with a series of ascending phrases and wordless scat by guitarist Anton Goudsmit countered by Herman's descending sax narratives on "Left Shoe, Right Shoe." Goudsmit vocals showed up again in a Jarrett-like fashion on "Do The Roach" (the label song), a bluesy, walking-beat composition where bassist Kasper Kalf built a sparse bass solo into alternating high- and low-fretboard stories. Drummer Joost Kroon demanded plenty of attention during a few maniacal solos, but they were more across-the-kit workouts than innovative rants.

The band got a deserved, albeit partial, standing ovation, and unlike many on-again off-again local bands the day at sea kept them from being a one-show wonder.

"We're playing again later," Herman said. "We're going to lock ourselves in our cabins and we hope to be sober."

Unedited from the notebook: "Whole thing is like that of a really good, solid, elevated club effort, halfway between pro and stellar. Sure, I've heard better gigs, but if this was a random night at a random club I'd come away more satisfied than most nights."

One mystery about why the onboard CD shop has so few selections — it's mostly Miller's sidemen like Dan Brown and Keith Anderson — was solved when people made the expected trek to take something by Herman home.

"It isn't available on the ship because we have to pay 30 percent commission," he said. "So everybody who goes to the festival will probably be able to find it cheaper in Rotterdam."

(For what it's worth, I grabbed several of his albums and Tyner's Fly With The Wind legally for a few bucks each from eMusic.com, yet another shameless plug for my favorite online store. Herman's no-words Web site is a horrible attempt at hip, but free samples of a wide range of his work can be heard by clicking the discs in his left hand.)

Final Lessons, Final Exam

Maybe the hardest thing about a legend's concert is meeting expectations.

Tyner is one of those rare players who, when I hear him live, am expecting to be schooled with stuff that goes over my head like a foreign-language immersion class. Coming out feeling like I've given it my full concentration and understood a couple of new concepts is the goal. But performances have been getting mixed reviews in recent years and his 75-minute, no-encore evening show on the Rotterdam's main stage made it clear why. The fundamentals were in his fingers, but not the ingenuity.

I spent a day with a guilty nagging that my impressions couldn't possibly be true, but talking to a few others — some of whom noted Tyner's been in poor health the past year or so, sometimes playing sparingly at gigs — convinced me I wasn't completely misguided.

"I can tell he's still fragile," said Bobby Sparks, the keyboardist in Miller's current band.

That said, the evening with his quartet had its moments.

The foursome only brought the opening song (missed the title) to a mid-tempo simmer, with Tyner chording leisurely phrases without much space. At that point I was hoping it might be the opening salvo of a set that built and deconstructed intensity throughout the entire performance, not just by the song, certainly an interesting contrast to the hit-em-over-the-head introductions most bands rely on.

"Ballad For Asia" didn't discourage the thought, as Tyner's playing was notably more lush and dramatic, this time throwing in more non-sequential note flurries as he sort of coasted over bassist Gerald Cannon and drummer Eric Kamau Gravatt like a surfer on a rolling wave rather than an X-treme one. Gravatt, who's played with far too many legends to excuse my previous total ignorance of him, grabbed attention and respect quickly when they picked up the tempo on the next song with a solo highlighting various sections of his setup (notes: "I'm never really sure what's polyrhythmic but, wow, he's definitely got enough simultaneous language going to qualify").

But within that song were seeds of letdown, as saxophonist Gary Bartz, touring with Tyner's trio, played one of those well-defefined solos that spurred feelings I must be missing the deeper message and Tyner was relying on one- or two-chord repeats to build tensions between a solo whose character I noted as "strolling." A slow sense of descent followed, with my attention wavering more and more, and my notes growing fewer, as I simply wasn't coming out of songs with much of anything leaving an impression.

The crowd gave Tyner a strong hand for a couple of his latter solos, so it's fair to say he was reaching plenty of listeners. It was nothing like the painful experience of watching Oscar Peterson being able to play with only one hand — and the almost desperate insistence of fans who say he sounds legendary regardless—but there was a faint reminder of it and a terrible foreboding of such things possibly laying ahead in the future. Mortality is not fun to contemplate during a concert.

Watching a bunch of folks with no credentials at all drove those thoughts away.

A long hoped-for jam session finally took place in the Crow's Nest around 11 p.m., with Miller leading the get-together as a prelude to his band's midnight show. He's been a first-rate cruise host and the session was no exception, as he guided and encouraged players with a combination of skill and enthusiasm I haven't seen at a jam before.

"We got a drum player?" he said, welcoming players who were still arriving and tuning their instruments. "C'mon—we can't do anything without a drum player."

"You need sticks, too," he reminded a volunteer heading toward the kit.

"We got a bassist? This is a jam, so I want to give a bassist an opportunity."

None were immediately available so, surely to nobody's disappointment, Miller sat in during the first couple of songs, playing almost entirely vamps in the background. Mostly, though, he focused on conducting the musical concepts and impromptu arrangements.

"This is a jam session, so you've got to be aggressive and do your thing," he told the first group of players as they took their places. "You've got to step up — don't ask."

"Let's start with a blues, just a basic pattern," he continued. He got the drummer and bass into a groove, then got others to step in with a crude head for a couple of passes before getting to the real purpose.

A young alto saxophonist stepped up first after a fleeting hesitation, playing a musically correct solo that still held some lingering shyness. Zachary Silveria, 45, a tenor saxophonist I met and wrote about on Day 2, stepped up next and shook out a nice harvest of level-handed short notes, throwing in a few higher-register dashes to break the pattern. One of the smart players, he stayed safely within his abilities — I'd heard him stretch further while practicing in his cabin, but those also came with the occasional glaring error. A trombonist, then Miller doing a short and medium-dense slap solo, a silver alto sax with a meshed Parker/Crawford tone and aggressive bebop vocabulary, and an organ vamp too low in volume and sparse on chords followed.

"Do you want to do a shuffle or a da-da-da?" Miller asked next. Whichever the drummer and bassist chose, they choked on the opening. "OK, that's not going to work. Let's do a funk instead."

"OK, horn player we need a melody—go (silver alto kicks out an OK effort with a few sour notes )...OK, we need first solo—go (elderly man with another alto sax vamps for 16 bars)... OK, one more—go (to the same player)... OK, tenor sax, tenor sax, tenor sax - where you going man? OK, alto (young alto sax steps in)... cut drums—keep playing (to young alto)."

The crowd was tuned in, giving appropriate applause to some of the more accomplished solos. Maybe 15 players were on stage by the end of the all-too-short session, which lasted maybe 45 minutes before Miller had to prepare for his show.

The raw notes review: "Like a school concert, it seems unfair to grade what's basically a pickup game at the Y. Just the huge tonal variety of the players is awesome and nobody seems incompetent or showboating in manner that would, back in Miles' days in Harlem, cause the skilled cats to take someone into the alley outside for a beating."

Silveria, seeking to fulfill his dream of becoming a smooth jazz musician before an eye disease takes his sight, didn't get his biggest wish of jamming with Kirk Whalum during the cruise, but the session satisfied him. Wearing a black cap and shirt instead of his usual camouflage and looking more clean-shaven, he said he tried to more than just hold his own during the latest of similar sessions he's played while traveling trying to make contacts.

"I was trying to get the horn players together, but..." he trailed off.

The Nutty Professor

There's usually a little extra goofiness the last night at sea.

The expected desert buffet was the Rotterdam's late-night pool-deck offering and, as is sadly often the case, was a better visual than gastronomic indulgence. Mostly a collective of the mini-pastries, mousses and cakes served to date, with a few eye-catchers seemingly for show. A disc-like coffee cake looked tempting but was so hard it could have been a decoration they'd been using all week. They also committed the cardinal sin of not offering anything that wasn't sweet, causing sugar fatigue to set in quickly. It served mostly as a reminder food quality seems to be declining, with creative presentations of things like pheasant and duck getting replaced with unremarkable chicken and salmon preparations. I expect things to be particularly bad the final four days, since most people will be at all three days of the festival and the final day will almost certainly be a pantry-clearing exercise.

I opted for a different sort of filler, concocted by the musician doing perhaps the most work for the least credit.

J.P. Nadeau, performing multiple times a day as the unnamed "ship pianist," was maybe halfway through a session lasting until nearly 2 a.m. in a small mid-ship Tropic Bar, next to the much more heavily occupied casino and sports bar (futbol on ESPN, of course). About a dozen people, nearly all elderly couples in twos and fours, were in the lounge or tables just outside of it next to the windows overlooking the sea.

If any noise was leaking in from the slot machines and soccer fans, it wasn't noticeable.

Nadeau took care of that as a hearty, roguish showman whose vocals trade volume for exact pitch at peak moments as he pounds out straightforward chords and melodies to well-known standards.

"This might hurt ya', but I'll do it anyway," he said as his introduction for one song. "I just want to see the pain on your face."

He punctuates most of his sentences with a raucous laugh, puts so much body English into his piano playing he wipes his brow with a handkerchief after every song and liberally—I'll say sips, not drinks — from the glass on the panel other players normally use to collect tips. He freely admits "I'm not a musician, I'm an entertainer," but says his role allows a much more interactive relationship with passengers than the more famous names on this cruise.

"Those people upstairs, they don't get to meet people and if they do it's 'Blah, blah blah,'" Nadeau said. "I got to meet women. I got hugs. I got kisses. I got drinks for me. I know they're making more money, but I love this."

Beneath the self-mockery is some legit talent.

A fleeting glimpse at something beyond piano bar schtick came on a respectably well-played arrangement of "Take Five," with Nadeau whistling the lead lines and a surprisingly lengthy straight-ahead solo. He started in a classic mid-range series of relatively even notes, stretching them gradually about an octave higher and sustaining the top-end ones as long tension builds that descended in intervals. There were also a handful of jumps and clipped-note chirps to lend unpredictability, but all with at least adequate pitch control and technique. His tone lacks the clear sharpness of a top-end pro (Nelson Rangell's "If I Could" remaining one of the definitive examples IMHO), but the breathy undertones are within acceptable limits. Above all, it was an impressive display of coordination, concentration and stamina.

"I timed that and it lasts five minutes. You try it and try to last for five minutes," he said with another laugh, mop of the brow and sip from his glass.

One man in the audience puckered up, but abandoned the effort after about 30 seconds.

Requests from the crowd came after nearly every song and like most lounge players he seemed ready to handle most of them from memory (he claims a repertoire of more than 400). While other, more famous players, were putting in their 90 minutes or so and calling it a night, Nadeau showed no signs of leaving or tiring until the last listener departed. He said audiences have been only slightly lighter than normal during this cruise.

"I'm lovin' it," he said. "I can't believe I'm pulling them in."

The native of New Brunswick, Canada, said he hasn't seen any of the jazz performances ("I couldn't stand in line. I'd rather meet the passengers instead"). He said he's been a longtime entertainer after enduring misery as a life insurance salesman—"a cross between Bobby Short and Mel Torme" is how his Web bio describes him — but fulfilling his desire of getting a cruise ship gig took a long time.

"So many people told me I should be on ships, it sort of created a mystic, almost a vision, for me, but it wasn't something I had access to," he said. "I'm landlocked, I'm Canadian. So finally I booked myself with an agent...I only booked myself as far as I could drive."

Nadeau's first ship gig came in 1999 when he was hired for Holland America's Millennium Cruise To Hawaii and he has seen most of the world by sea in the years since. His gigs typically start around 7 p.m. or so, leaving him freer than most crew to participate in shore excursions as an escort.

"It's fun, it's an opportunity," he said. "You just behave on those things and they keep using you. All you do basically is tag along and you're the sheep dog. You make sure nobody gets lost, you count people and you report to the guide on the bus."

He has a wife and three grown daughters, but has only been home for three weeks during the past year.

"I tell people 'What's the point of her sending me away if she's going to come along?'" Nadeau said with another punctuating laugh.

"She's got a real job with the government. We consider it peace in the valley. The only problem is the dogs get used to sleeping in the beds, so when I get home..."

More laughter.

Individual members of the family have accompanied him on cruises, but they finally all participated together on this year's New Year's voyage he was working. He set them up with the full tour, exposing them to things like hot stone massages and parasailing in Half Moon Key.

"I told them they were going to start the New Year in the sky," he said. "It was freakin' incredible. They just died."

Laughter.

Nadeau has recorded two albums of mixed originals and standards that are sold in the ship's gift shop and available at his Web site (both can be streamed in full free of charge). Most songs are mellower than his lounge act, but "Yellow Blues" (download the MP3) is a strong example. His biography is a long, but captivating read about his music background, the history of his compositions and highlights of his travels.

Coming on Day 9: Land Ho! Friend or Foe For The Festival Natives?


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