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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
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.


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 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."

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