2007 North Sea Jazz Cruise: Day 1

Mark Sabbatini By

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Day 1 | Day 2-3 | Day 4 | Day 5 | Day 6 | Day 7 | Day 8 | Day 9-12

Even for organizers who've done jazz cruises worldwide, this is a whole new level.

More bands. More diversity than the mostly straight-ahead acts usually booked. And a ship that a couple of weeks ago was flooded top to bottom returning from Antarctica in the world's harshest sea.

The inaugural North Sea Jazz Cruise, a 13-day Scandinavian voyage from July 5-17 ending with the festival itself in The Netherlands, is promoted as the most ambitious ever by the longtime company Jazz Cruises LLC. But the so-far smooth sailing of the five-star charter voyage masks the maelstrom of unheard of challenges workers are facing non-stop.

"I've done jazz cruises all over the world, but nothing like this," said Gary Baldassari, production manager for Jazz Cruises. "It's almost like we're running a small war."

Eight of the 14 headliner bands embark and disembark in a single day, compared to the normal routine of having a more limited number onboard the entire trip, he said. Many have unique power needs due to their equipment and home countries, adding to the complication of an unusual on-board ship current and wires corroded from the flooding that ship staff are replacing continuously between shows.

The ship's default current is slightly different than normal European standards, Baldassar said, making the B3s and some other keyboards by bands such as Medeski, Martin and Wood play too fast. Of bigger concern, of course, is not frying the large assortment of avant-garde and vintage gear being rushed on and off. The latter often has to occur within an hour after a show because of ship sailing times.

But his war metaphor is proving opposite of the results for passengers who warmly responded to a predictable but dynamic fusion stage jam by bassist and host Marcus Miller, and a more sedate—and accomplished—duet of standards in a lounge by pianist Bill Mays and saxophonist Frank Morgan. Hints of the voyage's promised up-close intimacy were seen by things such as running into trumpeter Roy Hargove at the shore excursion desk. He didn't want to talk just then, but offered his cabin number and an "I'll be around" to his questioner before each hurried separately toward their destinations—each figuring out their way to the Mays/Morgan gig, as it turned out.

The lineup includes McCoy Tyner, MMW with John Scofield, Herbie Hancock, James Carter, David Sanborn and others generally playing a main evening concert, with two shows after by different artists in separate and smaller lounges, plus a nightly after-midnight pool deck party with D.J. Logic. A few daytime shows, autograph signings and discussions, a Sunday morning gospel hour with Kirk Whalum are among the other scheduled activities.

So despite some miserable delays and hitches getting myself aboard, it's hard feeling much grief during the opening hours of what surely will be the most luxurious experience I'll have in my marathon hunt for jazz in the world's most unlikely and unusual places. A single cabin costs $4,500—including a hefty IAJE discount— which covers concerts mornings, afternoons and nights, a bunch of recreational pastimes and something like eight meal opportunities a day (plus 24-hour free room service). Rather annoyingly, they do charge for Diet Cokes and lattes—and internet access that makes these posts possible is $20 an hour.

Some personal notes and disclosure: The rules are no photos by anyone, including the press, during the main shows, so while I snuck a blurry snapshot during Marcus Miller's opening night gig most of what you'll see may be occurring elsewhere. On the other hand, it's musicians on a stage that looks much like any other, so hopefully the rest is more interesting. Also, this is far from a newbie's love letter rant about his seductive surroundings, as I'm a much more knowledgeable about the cruise industry than the music scene (sad, I know, given the focus of this piece). I've spent more than a decade reporting and editing in the 30,000- person town of Juneau, Alaska, where the nearly 1 million annual cruise ship visitors are perhaps the biggest single controversy due to their immense importance and impacts on a city some say is now a Disneyesque facade of its former self. Both sides seem to think I'm heavily biased against them, so hopefully it means my perspective is squarely in the middle. Finally, my trip has been mostly about seeking out the lesser-knowns of jazz and there's a tendency to do so here (i.e. the person playing the most gigs is the unnamed "ship pianist," who likely is getting very little love since he's competing against two simultaneous late-night headliners), although the essentials of the main players are obviously covered.

The Setup

Seeking to dazzle immediately and continuously, a model cruise comes to the gangway in the most lavish of makeup.

The vessel here is Holland America Line's Rotterdam flagship, a mid-size self-contained resort with room for 1,316 passengers whose range of modern diversions includes one of the largest libraries at sea, tennis and basketball courts, and maybe seven or eight places to hear music. Underneath the pancake is a maiden whose unvarnished charms are the works of everything from Venus to Medusa in various eyes, but the gloss worked its wonders on paying passengers boarding the ship in Copenhagen starting late the morning of July 5. Most got through the maze of customs and ticketing in minutes. Compared to a bargain-basement Carnival cruise in the Caribbean I took a couple of years ago, it was the difference between the first-class line and economy at the airport, as is proving to be the case with much of the voyage to date.

The usual welcoming buffet greeted a relative few who seemed interested, but surprisingly there was no band of any kind, especially since a jazz trio at a cocktail reception in the atrium was the first thing Carnival passengers experienced coming aboard. This may have been partially due to the complexities of setting up for the first-time event, with people like Baldassari still swamped with setup and planning duties and media officials uncertain about arrangements for a large arriving press contingency. Similarly, the music at dinner came from a player piano and a well-promoted "Java And Jazz" event implying live music each morning in the internet cafe is merely recorded music already playing much of the day.

Nearly the entire ship is essentially quiet until the first concert and dinner seating at 6 p.m., with half of the passengers assigned to each. I chose the early dinner seating, figuring if I spent extra time ashore it's easier to catch up on a missed meal than a missed performance. My eight-person table is a diverse mix of other single travelers from Europe, Australia, Canada and the U.S., including an NPR jazz show broadcaster and others of mixed age who motivations are only the slightest variations of "I've always wanted to go on a cruise and I like jazz." There's an awkward first few minutes before getting to and past the usual introductions, but many say they were lured because the likes of Miller, Sanborn and James are or were a big reason they became attracted to jazz. I can relate, getting hooked on Sanborn and Chick Corea during the mid 1980s before developing a taste for straight-ahead a few years later.

Opening night

Passengers are clearly in for a barrage of "captive audience" jokes.

Marcus Miller used them at least four times during the second of his two shows with his fusion sextet in the Queen's Lounge, a two-level room with furniture and tables circling a large stage in the manner of a large urban music club. But they weren't unwelcome, prefacing the best moments of a whimsical high-energy set.

The bassist kicked the 90-minute performance of "Blast" from his July 16 album Free, one of those driving funk/fusion pieces common to his opening tunes, but the emphasis was familiar career favorites and hits from well-knowns like Stevie Wonder.

Miller thundered his trademark funky slap-note lines with characteristic smoothness, working the crowd well in the process. Among the highlights was a topsy-turvy arrangement of Beethoven's "Sonata"—one of those "since you're a captive audience we're going to try something different" pieces—which is how Miller said he first heard the tune as a youth. After getting keyboardist Bobby Sparks to riff the traditional melody, he brought in a modest soul beat by drummer Boogie Bell and a wah-wah vamp. Whalum made a guest appearance and coasted gracefully over the whole thing.

Getting much of the center stage all evening was saxophonist Keith Anderson and he proved worthy of the elevated sideman status during songs like a liberally phrased arrangement of his Latin composition "Desperately," spending more of the time in quick-note wide-ranging runs than themes. Trumpeter Patches Stewart, after doing a decent impression Miles' leisurely muted-horn from the late '80s on "Jean Pierre," picked it up a notch on Anderson's tune as well with a straight-tone sprint exploring the upper tone and timbre ranges in much greater depth. A group jam-and-march through the audience on the finale achieved the obviously hoped-for standing ovation. D.J. Logic guested on a couple of songs as well, introducing himself as a talent whose scratches are subtle enough to blend in as instruments and compliment without overriding the soundscape.

Less rowdy, but packing more hardcore punch, were the late-night sets of standards by Morgan and Mays in the small-club Ocean Bar. These are the shows where I basically stop trying to analyze pieces because I'm flat out of my league doing so—and more selfishly it's an irritating interruption to my concentration. With heartfelt hopes of not offending him, this is a verbatim politically incorrect thought expressed to a friend back home later: "he's (Morgan) just this shriveled old guy playing standards with no flash or fancy presentation—they could have been at his kitchen table—but with a passion, intelligence and non-stop subtle change of technique that is completely mind blowing."

This was basically two longtime masters of thought and technique engaged in a brilliant conversation uncluttered by anything beyond the minimalism of their instruments. They were perfectly at ease talking between sets with the packed crowd, who were also suitably suitably respectful of their space. It was, in short, the essence of what organizers were doubtless hoping for between their frantic battles with an ailing ship that so far is hiding its cracks amazingly well.

On Days 2-3: A storm of straight-ahead blowing sessions and a sax-playing neighbor's quest to be heard before he can no longer see.

(Author's note: Due to incorrect information in the ship's program, Bud Shank was listed instead of Frank Morgan in the original post of this article. I actually had Morgan's name in all of my notes, but after a last- second double-check of the program I thought something must have been playing tricks with my memory. Turns out Shank was ill and Morgan was a late replacement).

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