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2007 North Sea Jazz Cruise Day 5: Sounding Off In Oslo

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

Some days it's good not to be shocking.



Peaceful stability greeted Day 5 of the inaugural North Sea Jazz Cruise, as a ship rolling heavily the previous two nights docked in Oslo, Norway, from 8 a.m. to midnight. With little need to rush before the start of shows at 4 p.m. and knowledge they'd be on even keel, many minds were probably more at ease.



Those of the technical crew for the concerts, however, definitely were not.



Like the cruise ship workers often slaving for long hours seven days a week, some at tasks like sorting all trash by hand into various recyclables and non-recyclables in the bowels of the ship (picture is from another Holland America ship I wrote about, the technical crew sweated through ugly problems literally hidden behind the luxurious walls where passengers were soaking up the attempt to please their every whim.



"They don't need to know all the little things that are driving us crazy," said Gary Baldassari, production manager for Jazz Cruises LLC, a St. Louis-based company hosting four jazz voyages a year, plus a Latin cruise and Elvis cruise, most about a week long in the Caribbean.



Unfailingly pleasant even under the most taxing circumstances, Baldassari, in an interview conducted in a series of brief installments while he was setting up gear or hustling between three main stages throughout the ship, said his five-member crew has individual locations each is responsible for. Major land-based festivals often have dozens of workers and maybe hundreds of volunteers, but Baldassari relies on efficiency ("Hey, we're experts—this is what they hired us to do") and whatever sound staff happens to accompany bands.



Everyday challenges on any jazz cruise are detailed in a May 2003 article Baldassari wrote for Live Sound International.



"Providing sound reinforcement for the Jazz Cruise has presented challenges," he wrote. "In addition to diverse and sometimes very difficult venues, the mix engineers aren't jazz aficionados, and with three stages providing a minimum of 12 hours of jazz per day over the course of 10 days, this problem is magnified. Many mixers seem to lose the drive to do their best long before their shift is up."



Jazz Cruises was founded in 2000 by Anita Berry, in charge of similar-theme events for Norwegian Cruise Lines for more than 20 years previous. The company charters entire vessels instead of mingling with regular voyages, no doubt simplifying matters from a passenger perspective for things like show admission. The North Sea cruise in Scandinavia is the company's most ambitious to date, with a location far from their usual waters and roster of more than 20 bands considerably larger than normal. There's also far more moving of those bands, many with unique gear and needs, during the five port calls by Holland America's 780-foot-long Rotterdam.



"Usually we bring them all on at once," said Baldassari, . "This time there's eight on and off the ship."



Much of the work is on-the-fly as some shows are by locals hustled on and off the ship within a few hours, sometimes with only an hour to break down a concert before departure. By the end the tech crew may be the only non-crew not to disembark with unwanted extra baggage.



"I usually lose five to eight pounds on these cruises," Baldassari said.



By far the biggest problem is electricity.



Two highly unusual challenges exist. The first is the seemingly basic meshing of equipment from two continents, each with different plugs and voltages. But it turned out arriving with the proper adapters and converters wasn't enough: the U.S. uses 110/60 volt/frequency current, Europe 220/50—and the Rotterdam 220/60 (an extreme rarity). There's more to worry about than just damaging gear—it was triggering the equivalent of a bad drug trip in some analogue synths and other vintage electronic instruments.



"It was making all of them play too fast," Baldassari said.



A group like Medeski, Martin and Wood (actually, no "like" in this case - they were the techs' primary concern) uses a large assortment of such instruments, many of them rare and all fragile. There's only a few Mellotrons (an early '60s invention that uses short audio tapes of flute samples for sound) throughout Europe, for instance, which are being strategically manipulated like an outmanned army during MMW's extensive tour of the continent.



The other major problem is the Rotterdam, while returning from Antarctica through the Ross Sea as part of an around-the-world journey shortly before the North Sea cruise, was hit by storms with waves that hit and flooded everything from the top rooms down on the 10-deck ship. This is the same sea of Ernest Shackleton's famous voyage and a personal (wild) guess is we're talking at least 60- to 80-feet waves. The result was a ship full of wires at risk of corrosion from salt water, which ship staff are replacing and repairing out of sight at a feverish pace between shows.


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