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Back Roads Beat

2007 North Sea Jazz Cruise Days 9-12: Land-ho! Causing Waves At The Festival

By Published: July 30, 2007
Day 1 | Day 2-3 | Day 4 | Day 5 | Day 6 | Day 7 | Day 8 | Day 9-12



(Author's note: While the "gee-whiz" factor ought to be diminishing after a decade of dealing with digital music, I'm in absolute raptures discovering a large number of concerts from the 2007 North Sea Jazz Festival available as free streaming audio from their website. Anyone smart enough to use Google can find something like Audio Hijack that will convert them to MP3s for use on an iPod or whatever.)

It takes a lot to make one of the world's largest jazz festivals anti-climactic.

The inaugural North Sea Jazz Cruise arrived in Rotterdam on July 13, just in time for the 900 passengers who've spent the past eight days being saturated in music and Scandinavian port stops to attend the three- day North Sea Jazz Festival. Most had positive things to say about the festival, except for excessive heat possibly caused by ventilation problems the final day. But speaking personally as a multi-time festival attendee who's seen many of the featured performers up close for more than a week aboard the ship, mingling among 90,000 others trying to jam their way into seats from from the stage didn't have the same appeal.

Also, using Holland America Line's Rotterdam as lodging was a massive blessing that saved hours of travel many festival-goers endure daily, but the atmosphere onboard was very much that of winding down. For some that actually was a blessing, as organizers, crew and musicians sometimes working nearly round- the-clock in the contained setting of a 778-foot ship finally could relax and reflect on what worked and what needs improvement next time.

"This is the first time we've ever done anything like this in conjunction with the festival," said Michael Lazaroff, executive director of Jazz Cruises LLC, at the beginning of the featured concert with McCoy Tyner on Day 8 in the main theater. The company organizes several cruises in the Bahamas each year, but was in new waters with a new approach to the bands for this voyage and "obviously not everything was perfect—"

"It was wonderful," a woman in the audience shouted out, getting a robust round of concurring applause that kept Lazaroff from finishing his apology.

Comments from passengers were nearly all positive about major aspects of the cruise such as the musician lineup and activities, although there were a range of complaints and suggestions about smaller things ranging from imprecise scheduling to poor logistics for shuttle buses to town while in port. For organizers who spent the trip trying to avoid a meltdown—almost literally—from electrical problems on ship that was still repairing flooding damage from an Antarctic storm, the lack of any major problems affecting passengers made the trip an overwhelming success.

"I was on fire and didn't know it," said Gary Baldassari, production manager for Jazz Cruises. He said relatively minor adjustments such as more staff and backup gear will help future such cruises go smoother, even if the basic challenge of hosting a larger roster of bands who are frequently progressive in nature and therefore have more complex demands than most of the company's trips remains.

"There's always music at sea, but nothing like the intensity of what we played here," he said.

Muddying The Waters

"Amsterdam to party, The Hague to live, Rotterdam to work," is a common saying in The Netherlands, but the North Sea Jazz Festival is part of an urban renewal effort somewhat at odds with Rotterdam's pride in its productivity.

Residents tend to scoff at Amsterdam's play-loose-and-hard mentality (and if the feeling by the partiers about a city of workaholics isn't mutual I'll eat my iPod), but they're clearly happy accepting the money the festival has generated since moving here from The Hague in 2006. One surprise was learning the cruisers aren't necessarily a welcome part of the influx.

"This is the third goddam trip to the terminal," said Ron, a Rotterdam taxi driver for more than 20 years, when I climbed into his car after Day 1 of the festival. "It's unreal."

Ron, whose last name I'm omitting to keep him out of trouble, launched into his tirade after my seemingly innocent inquiry of "how's business?" He said fares to the terminal are about "10 ($14), compared to "65- "85 ($90-$120) for The Hague and "140-185 ($195-$260) for Amsterdam. Staggering as those fares are, there's invariably a huge line at the taxi stand coming out of the festival, even if most of the plebes rely on much cheaper tram/train combinations that typically take two- to three-hours. (Mercifully, daytime fares to the Amsterdam airport booked with the cruise line are "only" $100).

Ron says he's a fan of jazz—something with Miller and David Sanborn was playing on the radio—"but if you are a cab driver you don't have time for anything" related to the festival. Shifts are typically 12 hours, although he said volume doesn't increase during festival weekend since weekdays are when locals keep drivers busiest. He said he understands why cruise passengers are all too glad avoiding marathon commutes, but drivers are the ones stuck repeatedly in the slow-moving parking lot queues to pick up emerging festival-goers and the increased likelihood of a "bum" fare.

"I will drop you off and I will go back and hope the next ride that I get goes out of town," he said.

Plenty of people made day trips out of town before the festival opened its doors each evening, since more culturally interesting diversions from Anne Frank's hideout to hash houses are an hour away in Amsterdam (getting there by train is cheap, easy and comfortable—unless it's after midnight and several thousand people are trying to catch a scaled-back number of runs). But Rotterdam has enough charms, most notably its post-war architecture, for a long weekend (alas, my masochistic desire to visit the Tax Museum went fulfilled).

Rotterdam's name roughly translates as "muddy water dam," with a large collection of dikes protecting a city below sea level in many areas. It is the largest port in Europe and has one of its most acclaimed university business school programs. Like many cities in the region, a significant portion was leveled during World War II (in 1940 at the hands of the Germans in this case, leading to the surrender of the Dutch). The Wikipedia entry on the reconstruction notes "from the 1950s through the 1970s, the city was rebuilt. It remained quite windy and open until the city councils from the 1980s on began developing an active architectural policy. Daring and new styles of apartments, office buildings and recreation facilities resulted in a more 'livable' city center with a new skyline."

One of my favorite statistics has to do with having the Netherlands' highest percentage of non-industrialized foreigners: more than 50,000 of its 590,000 residents are Surinamese, coming from a tiny country along the northern coast of South America that is unmentioned in virtually every travel guide in print (I was there as part of my quest to seek jazz in the world's truly unusual places—look a report on it and two equally obscure neighbors that comprise a trio known as the Guianas in the near future).

The North Sea festival relocated here in 2006 after 30 years in The Hague because a large portion of the Congress Centre they used was torn down to make room for a new Europol criminal intelligence agency facility. While I'll give the Ahoy center in Rotterdam a slight overall preference for handling large crowds, I miss the small lounge-like rooms the relatively obscure acts I prefer performed at in The Hague; they're in larger, less comfortable outside tents in Rotterdam. Also, the apparent ventilation problems on the final day left sweaty impressions for many returning home, not to mention what a few strangers in adjacent seats on trans-Atlantic flights probably thought.

Most of the ship was vacant by the time the doors opened at 5 p.m. on Day 1. However, I notice I've started approaching North Sea like a Vegas heavyweight fight over the years—skipping the early undercards and showing up for the main event(s)—starting at 9 p.m. on Day 1—with the main difference being I focus mostly on the "unknowns" upon arriving.

The two "names" dominating my interest on Day 1, and for the entire festival for that matter, were two trumpeter masters at opposite ends of what I'll call modern minimalism: Poland's Tomasz Stanko (think old- school Miles with a cool accent) and Norway's Nils Petter Molvaer (one of maybe three people on Earth I consider a true artist with a sampler and beat box). Beyond that, I planned to spend most of the night in the tent featuring Eastern European bands I'd never heard of, just to hear what emerged.

Stanko and Moelvaer both delivered what I wanted to hear, but neither was so distinct from what I have on about a zillion albums and videos that it dragged my attention from composing these posts on my laptop for long stretches. That said, I have scattered notes about the wizardry of each that read more like fan mail than serious critiques and, since I'm focusing on the cruise, are best skipped. Worse, I basically shirked my duties in the Euro tent altogether, typing away while keeping the music blissfully in the background. It's a lot like jazz in Norway—it's all good.

My favorite encounter of the weekend was a "busker" doing a one-man band thing outside the entrance leading to the parking lot. Jeff Silvertrust was playing typical showman schmaltz (i.e. "100 Ways To Get Bin Laden"), but riffling through several CDs and a DVD near his hat made it clear he's not living meal-to-meal on spare change. Also, as you may have guessed, North Sea doesn't let just anyone play in front—they issue invitations and make arrangements well in advance like any of the bands inside. (One of my favorites from a couple years ago, saxophonist Matt Cashdollar, then part of a group of friends in a new band they called The Madcap Four, now has a mass of free MP3s from various projects at www.mattcashdollar.com/music.html.)

Born in Chicago and now living in Belgium as the latest stop in a lengthy career alternating between the U.S. and Europe, sidemen on his albums include Archie Shepp, Sam Rivers, Sonny Fortune, Marc Copland, Avery Sharpe and many others. He's got free one-man band videos at his Web site, which also sells two of his many albums (I recommend 2002's Hip Knossis with many of the players just mentioned over One-Man Band) . In addition, using Google I found three YouTube videos of his one-man stuff where he does things like mix "Cantaloupe Island" with "Gilligan's island."

He's been making a living doing the one-man stint since 1980, playing piano with his left hand, trumpet with his right and percussion with his feet, plus other sounds interspaced where appropriate. But his music influences include legends like Clifford Brown, Sonny Rollins and Sun Ra, and currently leads a German quartet when not doing everything himself.

For cruisers, one of the bigger topics of conversation came on the last day when Miller hastily filled in for Amy Winehouse, "the sobriety challenged British singer (who) has canceled so many shows in the last month that bookies are actually placing odds on her showing up to her concerts" (to quote the site www.celebitchy.com"). Another site, www.celebrity-gossip.net, notes "the British songbird actually made it to the airport before deciding to nix the gig...She went so far as to check in for her flight and cleared security. And then she decided that she was too tired to travel. She announced that she was canceling the show, and returned to her home, due to 'exhaustion.'"

I didn't make the show, having seen Miller play many times during the cruise, but several people I talked to on the ship said it was another solid performance to end a long string of them. I also found a writeup by someone named Jeremy of Sheffield, England, who seems to be a knowledgeable and prolific poster at a forum called Incognito, which details the extent to which other major players showed up on the spur of the moment:

"Marcus Miller's Sunday set began exactly as it had done on Friday—the opener 'Blast' which I still don't rate although it's basically an insidious Asian riffs that gets into your brain and won't let go. Then he requested the audience's indulgence in allowing a repeat performance of 'Jean Pierre'—fair enough, a hint that the set would then head off in a different direction, which it did and how. The unmistakeable opening bars of 'Run For Cover' with Candy Dulfer hauled onto stage (her set had been rescheduled to follow Marcus'). Candy Dulfer is hugely popular in her native Holland—she's probably considered a relative lightweight in pure jazz terms but she's a terrific party guest and always looks great.

I'd already spotted another trumpeter just off stage with his distinctive shades so I knew it was about to get even better. But first Marcus introduced African guitarist Lionel Loueke to sing and perform presumably one of his own tunes—then Marcus and gang joined in, Roy Hargrove arrived on stage, and a beautiful African- tinged piece emerged. It was then that Marcus wished Amy well in her state of 'exhaustion', and called on DJ Logic to play something from the crates—'trying to make me go to re-hab!!!' The whole jam was totally enjoyable from down in front of stage. YouTube doesn't really convey the total crowd involvement but I love some of the comments about that clip.

The set ended with the bomb version of 'Come Together' with Kirk Whalum joining the line-up. Marcus seemed to be having a blast, the horn section + guests strode forwards and backwards playing in conga formation. The whole place was rockin'. I loved it—unforgettable. I don't know exactly how long Marcus had been given to bring this set together—but he'd pulled it off big time. The Master of All Trades. A great musician, a great organizer."


Host With The Most

His concerts and new album didn't wow me, but nobody performed better on this cruise than Marcus Miller.

Usually it's the anonymous behind-the-scenes types who earn this distinction, and plenty of them were lights-out in near-equal fashion on this voyage, but Miller did it all before a demanding public. Not once did I see him being anything less than gracious whether it was before a large audience, a crowd seeking autographs or just some individual in a hall who stopped him for a private word. I've always been a skeptic of the public/private personas of big-name entertainers, but in Miller's case you eventually simply accept this is who he is (it's far more credible than thinking he can maintain a public facade 20 hours a day for 11 days in the tight quarters of a ship).

Maybe I shouldn't have been surprised. The last time I saw him at any length was a couple of years ago when he offered a brutally frank and refreshing overview of the artistic compromises he and other make during a smooth jazz discussion panel at the International Associate Of Jazz Education conference in New York. I may never be the fan of his music I was when he was amplifying the likes of David Sanborn in the 1980s, but it's impossible not to put him in the very short list of musicians I respect most.

Comments from fellow passengers and others involved with the cruise were, without exception, similarly laudatory.

"I don't remember anybody being a host who has done more," said Lazaroff, the Jazz Cruises executive director, in his Day 8 remarks to the audience.

"Let me tell you how I met him," he said, detailing his approach to Miller about hosting the cruise. "Nervously, I went to his studio in L.A. and it almost looks like a factory; there's always something going on back there. I started talking, he's just nodding at me. I said (to myself) 'OK, this is a person who believes in the finite theory of life. Everybody has so many words before they die and he must want to live 300 years because he isn't saying anything.'"

Finally, Lazaroff said, Miller asked only a couple of questions. "Who gets to pick the lineup?"

"I said 'You do,'" Lazaroff responded. He said Miller then asked about the budget and, hearing resources to bring top-tier festival and port-city musicians aboard would be available, said 'OK, I'll do it.'"

Miller, in an interview on the last day of the trip, said he's been on smooth jazz cruises, had an idea of a host's duties and what approach he wanted to take.

"The hardest part of doing the cruise is getting the musicians lined up and I didn't do that," he said. "But then it's just like being at a big party and making sure everybody's cool and you've got your rest ahead of time."

But staying cool about the unplanned things was where Miller and others frequently were at their best—at least from what the public saw. When Winehouse canceled, the scramble to find a replacement fell on Bibi Green, Miller's manager and program coordinator for the cruise. On the last day of the cruise, she was finally free to lounge on a couch in a lounge where Miller was signing autographs and tell the story to friends in a now-it's-funny kind of way.

"(A festival official) said 'Amy Winehouse canceled, can Marcus do a show?'" she said. "I said 'Is this a joke?'"

She called around in a rush, trying to reach Miller's band and finally contacting D.J. Logic. He went to the eighth-level Lido Deck where the buffet and pool are to spread the word, but everybody thought he was joking.

"We're going to Amsterdam—we'll see you tomorrow," BeBe recalled the musicians saying. "I said, "No — this isn't a joke.'"

They not only made the show, but were able to feature the additional musicians mentioned earlier. MIller, responding to a question about whether playing with so many different bands during the cruise presented any unusual challenges, responded in a way suggesting how the extra gig came together as well as it did.

"I was a studio musician for 20 years," he said. "Switching gears is no big difference for me."

Miller's late-morning autograph session in the Crow's Next, the last chance for U.S. residents to buy copies of his new Free CD well before it goes on sale there, was both a collective chance for passengers to thank Miller for the experience and him to show for a final time why there were so many compliments.

"I'm just giving him everything I have left over," said one elderly woman with a CD, plus a poster and cap that look like they had a slightly rough time during the weekend.

"You have been the most gracious host," said a middle-age woman from Colorado in the autograph line who told Miller this was her third jazz cruise.

One of the most common questions was how he was holding up after all the hard work ("I slept well last night," he told a few people). Mostly, though, he took a minute or so with each person, usually in an even exchange of inquiries about the trip and immediate future plans. Although the session was supposed to last from 11 a.m. to noon, Miller remained an extra half hour until everyone who showed up for an autograph got one.

His endurance was rewarded, as the final person in line was Gary Hodge, a vintage bass parts dealer who presented Miller with a soft case containing a 1960s Fender headstock Hodge was playing during the previous evening's jam session.

"Which one is it?" the bassist asked, eyeing the bag.

"It's the one you love," Hodge replied.

"Are you crazy?" Miller said, taking it out and turning it over a few times.

"You said you loved it. I can get another,'" the dealer insisted.

I know nothing about headstocks, but Miller's slightly embarrassed thanks and pleasure seemed anything but perfunctory. Hodge, after taking a few pictures with Miller and his new acquisition, said the bassist's already had time to become familiar with it.

"It's been in Marcus' room most of the week and he's been loving it," Hodge said.

Disembarking

Departing a cruise is typically a depressing riches-to-rags culture shock almost physically thrust upon passengers.

Luggage must be placed in the hallway before going to bed, restaurants serve a perfunctory meal of leftovers and shut down early, everyone is expected to get up early and then wait until their designated departure group (arranged by the time people need to catch flights) is called, and then everyone is shuttled by bus or cabs to whatever is carrying them to their next destination.

The final night of the North Sea Jazz Cruise had two advantages that broke the pattern for most aboard: nearly all the passengers were at the final day of the festival until it shut down around midnight, and those working the cruise were elated simply to be able to relax and reflect on their efforts.

There were plenty of leisurely hallway chats between stray passengers and musicians who opted for the quiet on board than just about any other time of the cruise. For a shore day, places like the pool deck were surprisingly well-occupied. Snippets of war stories passed in and out of earshot with seemingly every group of two or more people not in tourist clothes who walked by the table in the library I where I was writing (if it's not obvious, I skipped Sunday's festival entirely and, given the heat, have no regrets).

Among the organizers looking visibly more relaxed Sunday was Baldassari, as the production manager traded his work clothes for shorts and a "Malt Whiskey" t-shirt in Disneyesque lettering as he drank coffee at the bar in the Crow's Nest. He said next year—assuming there is another North Sea cruise—he'll bring more backup gear and wants a work crew of seven instead of five. As for dealing with complex issues like a power system on the ship that uses neither U.S. nor European current, that's simply one of the typical challenges on a trip that have to be dealt with as they come.

"There's not much we can do," he said. "We're still in their power."

The voyage was promoted as the most ambitious Jazz Cruises has attempted, due to a musician lineup that brought many on and off the ship instead of having a set roster the entire time. There was also a wider variety of styles than the smooth jazz cruises the company typically hosts and many bands had more complex equipment requirements than usual. That also meant an extra effort for the regular musicians who frequently mixed with the guests, but one they welcomed.

"What I liked about this for me is the challenge," said Dean Brown, Miller's guitarist and music coordinator for the cruise. "We have to play James Carter's music, we have to play it with conviction and integrity. We have to do David Sanborn or do the Texas Tenors.You can't phone any of this stuff in. i like the challenge of trying to be in the moment, but also trying to be aware of the environment I'm asked to be in. That's a lot different than touring as a sideman with a group and you're playing in that same environment every night. if you're worth your salt you're always going to be in the moment."

Heavy rolling from bad weather kept many people, including me, away from shows on two nights, but Brown said it wasn't a problem on stage.

"It had an effect on the music that was interesting," he said. "It was like, 'OK, we've got to use the music as a focus to get through this weird physical phenomena that's occurring.'"

Brown said such circumstances are what can make nearly any gig unique.

"If someone lights a cigar, if one little light goes out over here, if a person walks into a room with a weird outfit...it won't throw (the performance) off, but it will affect it and it should," he said.

Passenger complaints and wish lists for next time were short: more lectures and workshops, more jam sessions, less confusing itineraries (i.e. such as one implying live morning music when it was only recorded CDs) and better adherence to scheduling.

"I'd do some fine tuning, making sure there's enough for people to do during the day," Miller agreed. "I would like more discussions."

Bart Schneider, author of the jazz novel "Blue Bossa," said he'd like to see more music in a looser setting — noting on other cruises a band like the Count Basie Orchestra would break into subgroups playing in different rooms—but any shortcomings were insignificant given the total experience.

"I feel so absolutely privileged to be on something like this, you could get petty about the criticism," he said.



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