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Back Roads Beat

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

By Published: July 26, 2007
"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.


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