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.

Feeling At Home In 'The Meadow Of The Gods'

None of this worried - and almost certainly wasn't known—by passengers whose biggest concern of the day might have been avoiding smelling like fish.

The daytime itinerary was one of the most sparse of the voyage, with only a few regular cruise activities like "Daily Quiz and Sudoku" and "Card Players Get Together" before 4 p.m. Since the ship was docked in one of the world's five greatest countries (says me), extended shore leave seemed much in order, even if Oslo (population 840,000 including suburbs) is too urban and faceless to really capture the nation's charms. Various theories about the city's name range from "plain" to "divinity," although "Meadow Of The Gods" is commonly accepted. Excursions to look at things like Viking ships, the Holmenkollen Ski Jump, folk and sculpture museums, and the fjords from an old sailing ship were offered from $39 to $200 (the cheapest is a walking tour of the landmarks with "no inside visits").

I've been here many times and am returning for a month-long journey along the entire western coast immediately after the cruise. So I settled for the second-home creature comfort of walking to the central railway station and picking up essential supplies like smoked salmon and that funky brown Gjetost goat cheese that's boiled under pressure until caramelization gives it a fudge-like texture and intense, somewhat sweet, flavor that makes ultra-thin slices a perfect breakfast topping for toast.

Avoiding the temptation to buy a boxload of Norwegian jazz CDs - sadly they're much cheaper online due to miserable exchange rates - I returned to the Rotterdam shortly before the 4 p.m. concert by Oslo singer Silje Nergaard in the panoramic Crow's Lounge at the top fore of the ship (sample some of her work here and here). She put whatever lingering miseries the audience might be suffering from the night before in perspective.

"So you had a hard time onboard last night, I heard," she said. "Well, it's been raining here for eight years, so I'd like to go with you some place. I never get to do cruise ships."

But unlike some bands rushed off immediatly, the midnight departure was a blessing for her. "I'm going to stay and listen to some music before I ride my bicycle home," she said, adding to laughs the bicycle was a fit-the-stereotype fib.

A husky, mid-range vocalist with lush thickness of timbre, her work is more pop (and country pop at that) than jazz, a quality appreciated by some in the audience who remarked afterward they welcomed the change of pace. Dressed in a gold cocktail dress and backed by a quartet more comfortingly supportive than interactive, she divided her set between original romantic ballads and twanging up-tempo narratives often ringing with defiance. The music was a lot like her between-song chats—earthy and personal, sometimes a bit shy and awkward, and fun if not high-level dialogue.

"I see there are some couples here that are - how can I put this - some who look like they're been together longer than others," she said hesitatingly at one point, causing a bit of uncomfortable silence and faint embarrassed laughs near those singled out. She plodded on, talking about things like snoring ceasing to be charming and people forgetting to do little things for each other. The ensuing song, "Before You Called Me Yours," was a mellow guitar-heavy twanger that was unremarkably pleasant except Nergaard was miked too hot for her vocals, causing harshness every time she approached higher volumes.

But the band had plenty of fun with tunes like the s**tkicking "I Will Go With You" in their "Ukulele Amigos" setup with the instrumentalists surrounding Nergaard (do I really need to explain what they were playing?). They scattered back partway through into a driving R&B with a heavy '70s analogue synth scream. It had the potential to be the best of the set except, as my notes state, "they cranked the volume so loud I just wanted the song to end."

A Crowd Walks Out On MMW and Scofield—And An Unbilled Sanborn)

"A disgrace."

Those words by a panelist at a subsequent jazz history presentation were aimed at an audience that abandoned in large numbers the main evening concert by Medeski, Martin, Wood, touring with guitarist John Scofield. The panelist accused them of closing their ears to music not fitting their comfort levels of traditional jazz - and that certainly was a factor for some - but many said the sound was far too loud and harsh to endure.

For the tech crew, which overcame all of the challenges for the band it was most concerned about, it was a cruel blow caused when the show's fate was placed in other hands—or, to be more precise, ears.

The soundboard and MMW's sound engineer arrived the day of the show, flying a multi-segment flight between the United States and Norway, Baldassari said. Such flights compress the ears and make effective sound engineering impossible, but contractual obligations made it impossible for the Jazz Cruises crew to intervene.

"I said 'You've got to use one of our guys,'" he said. "But he was like, "No, I've got to do it.'"

Still, sound engineering wasn't entirely at fault for the audience's lack of enthusiasm. The theater was less than half full at the start of the 6 p.m. performance (delayed until 7 p.m. by technical difficulties and some late arriving musicians), by far the lightest of the trip. And the performance can only be described as lackluster, what I call a "pro gig" when I'm trying to be diplomatic. That's when there's a high foundation of talent, ensuring songs are adequately constructed, but without heart or sense of creativity. Medeski's keys were startlingly grey instead of his usual broad pallet of atonal sounds, as was Scofield's guitar. Maybe they were rushed, or maybe it had something to do with some rumored sound issue causing yelling backstage beforehand, but there wasn't a single song that hit on any level with me—until the finale just before the encore.

"Now I'd like to bring out—and this is the first time this group has gotten to play with him—David Sanborn," said Marcus Miller, the saxman's longtime collaborator and host of the cruise.

The five played a slamming version of "Little Walter Rides Again," and Sanborn's surprising and unbilled appearance seemed to loosen the stage as solos rediscovered their color and there were several exchanges of interconnecting dialect. It went long, loud and in all kinds of subgroups before the final group free jam, and got a raucous level of standing applause despite the diminished audience.

It's amazing how much crud can be redeemed by a single great moment—I was energized enough to risk eviction from the encore by breaking their very strict photography ban and snapping another world-exclusive Blurry Bootleg Of The Day.

If the sound arrangements ultimately didn't work out for the audience, at least the efforts of the tech crew weren't wasted on the musicians they were trying hardest to please.

"I didn't notice anything—I just played," Medeski said. "There's always something with these, but that's everywhere."

One late show was a trio playing again the next day, so I headed back to the Crow's Nest to hear the Texas Tenors playing with Miller and members of his band. It was one of those tasty blues gigs where the solos are complex enough to be more straight-ahead than blues, with a lot of fun tricks like an electric guitar solo which somehow rattled off a machine-gun paced rolling barrage of notes with inexplicable clips that sounded like the D or G string was absent.

Whether or not the day was considered a success by the tech crew, Baldassari was upbeat about their overall efforts when I spoke to him on the final night of ship concerts (as you may have noticed, these posts are a couple of days behind real time). Wearing one of those overly colorful print shirts and looking notably more relaxed, he said their main goal of keeping performers and listeners oblivious to the maelstrom of challenges was a success, hearing no complaints from the musicians about setups.

"We burned up a lot of gear, but we got through it," he said, adding "Stuff like that happens all the time. We bring spares, we expect it and we plan for it."

Coming on Day 6: Hearing It All At Sea From Hancock

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