2007 North Sea Jazz Cruise: Day 2-3

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

Comparisons are inevitable when traveling.

It's wondering why a gallon of gas costing $4 in the Land Of The Free is less than a dime under the crushing Banana Republic leadership of Tukmenistan. Or why the world's only superpower confiscates our water bottles when Japan has nifty new machines that analyze and literally give the green light in a second.

The question for those aboard the inaugural North Sea Jazz Cruise on Day 2 is if their pricey 11-day Scandinavian voyage will be a better experience than the Copenhagen Jazz Festival, being dangled and denied in front of them the same day the ship embarks.

Timing necessitates the unfortunate coincidence since the chartered Holland America ship Rotterdam is scheduled to arrive in its namesake city for the North Sea Jazz Festival starting July 13. So while the cruise may live up to its promise of being the most ambitious ever by Jazz Cruises LLC, it's very much "the other event" for the huge influx of jazz fans in the city.

I decide not to find out.

My thing is the unknown, the different and the obscure, and previous trips to Denmark have taught me the Copenhagen festival is a mass of madness (albeit the very best kind if you're good in crowds) and I'm much happier hearing lesser-known locals play three hours away at the Aarhus Jazz Festival, which starts when everybody in Copenhagen is packing up and recovering from their hangovers. Still, it seems cruel passengers are spending two days here and leaving just as the festival gets going.

The obvious alternative is soaking up everything on board. Which gets off to a bad start.

Staying up for the late-night shows on Day 1 meant struggling to get up and be in the Explorations Cafe (biggest library at sea, internet cafe and 24-hour espresso) at 9 a.m. for "Java And Jazz," promoted as 90 minutes of music and coffee. The cafe was nearly empty - not a lot of people seem willing to pay up to 75 cents a minute for Internet access or $3 for lattes when massive quantities of free food are available in some form 24 hours a day throughout the ship. It was also quiet, save for the low-volume recordings by featured musicians normally playing through the overhead speakers. I stuck around and nobody showed, which I figured might be some first-morning mixup since the young woman working the coffee stand didn't know what I was asking about. Still, being rather sleepy the rest of the day was an irritating reminder.

I took a quick last look around Copenhagen late in the morning, gritting my teeth and paying the $10 cab fare from the pier to downtown each way since the terminal is in no man's land. Mostly the purpose was picking up up a few essentials they charge extra for onboard like Diet Coke (the prices aren't, in fairness, the highway robbery rates of some bargain cruises).

A master and a man on a mission

Another comparative dilemma of travel: the comfort of well-known excellence or the possibly disappointing discovery of the unknown?

Being back at 1 p.m. was a must since drummer Alex Riel, one of Denmark's longtime jazz icons, was performing with his trio and guest alto saxophonist Benjamin Koppel in the Blue Note Jazz Club, a small observation lounge with a panoramic view from the top fore of the ship. The trio features young gun pianist Heine Hansen and upright bassist Jesper Lundgaard, a melodic master whose reputation may equal Riel's. Koppel's another young gun who's already got an impressive variety of straight-ahead, free jazz and symphonic projects to his credit, including his Nordic Design collaboration with Phil Woods (any theme from that region is a pretty surefire winner for me).

But dropping my bags in my cabin, I paused because it became obvious I'd been booked next to a noisy neighbor.

Somebody was playing a saxophone.

To almost any passenger on almost any cruise, this would be an insufferable invasion of privacy. On this kind of trip it's like winning the lottery.

The tone was restrained enough not be grating, but I couldn't begin to guess who it might be from the timbre or material. The practice riffs were a soothing tenor growl, if not showing any particular flair in technique, with the occasional squeak or sour note when an obvious attempt was being made to stretch some concept. Some seemed vaguely similar to the Marcus Miller concert the previous night and, while I figured there's no way Kurt Anderson or any other musician in Miller's band were in the lower commonfolk cabins, it didn't seem outlandish it might be some assistant or other person working with one of the main groups.


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