2007 North Sea Jazz Cruise Day 6: History, Hucksters And Hancock On The High Seas

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

'Twas a good day to be a captive audience.

The first of two days entirely at sea marked Day 6 of the inaugural North Sea Jazz Cruise, an 11-day voyage through Scandinavia aboard Holland America Line's 1,316-passenger flagship Rotterdam. Keeping consistent with some shakedown aspects of the first-time voyage, last-second scheduling changes were announced around 9 a.m., with an afternoon jazz history presentation moved to the first event of the day at 10 a.m. in the Queen's Lounge where the headline concerts are playing.

Bassist Marcus Miller, who passengers are getting to know at a rare close-up level as he's been a generous and ubiquitous host of the cruise, guided the chat accompanied by Neil Tesser and Mark Ruffin of KFSR radio in Chicago, prodding the audience for comments, questions and additions as they saw fit.

"I'm not going to try to explain the history of jazz in an hour on a boat," Miller said. "Any music a record executive in America can't figure out, they put a jazz label on it."

The discussion moved briefly from decade to decade, covering terrain familiar to hardcore fans, but filled with useful tips for those getting their feet wet in the genre.

"If you have two records of jazz one has to be Kind Of Blue, but the other one — and I'm talking to you guys — is John Coltrane's Ballads because it's all ballads from the decades before and it's magic," Miller said.

(My tip for newbies wanting to hear Hancock or other legends free without breaking copyright laws: Find a podcast of their work by doing a search on Google or a directory site like podcastdirectory.com.)

I gleaned the most afterward, as Miller sat on the edge of the stage and chatted for maybe 20 minutes with a handful of people. I didn't even attempt to ask questions — those of the informed and inexperienced alike were more insightful than anything I could have contributed. Besides of the obvious intimacy of seeing him outside of his big stage persona was his unfakeable enthusiasm and knowledge across the jazz spectrum. The last time I saw him in a discussion, at the annual IAJE conference in New York, he spoke frankly, at length and unhappily about the deliberate smoothing of artistic edges he and many other popular musicians (not to mention corporate minds and even individual radio outlets) do to make much of their music commercially appealing.

Miller played a midday concert with his band and a few others in the same theatre (he's performing so often I'm done reviewing each show) before conducting a 45-minute interview of Hancock shortly after. Immediately obvious was the longtime pioneer of technology hasn't lost his flair after more than 40 years.

"He walks onto the boat and he's like 'iPhone!'" Miller said after seeing the pianist flash his new gadget at his greeters. "That's Herbie Hancock. As soon as new technology comes out he's got to have it. And he knew how to use it, which means he'd had it for a few days."

The audience didn't get deep insight into the piano legend's work, but he offered advice for developing players based on his experience. Miller and Hancock also exchanged numerous stories about their experiences working with Miles Davis at very different points of his career.

Miller started the discussion saying there's probably two modern jazz pianists recognizable instantly by their sound — Hancock and McCoy Tyner, both of whom are on the cruise — and asked about one of the potential pitfalls of penning compositions played by massive numbers worldwide.

"There's no way you can play the jazz piano without knowing you guys," Miller said. "I just want to know, Herbie, what it feels like...turning on the radio, going 'He's playing my licks again, playing it wrong.' What do you think?"

"I don't think about it at all," Hancock said. "When I first became aware I was having an influence on other piano players I was flattered. My only experience has been flattery."

At the same time, he added, he hopes people learning his material use it as a springboard to finding their own voice. He said many people copy Bill Evans, but when hearing him as a youth "I said 'I don't want to be a copy of somebody I'm not.'"

Playing with Davis helped because "I had to look for some solutions I didn't hear from Bill Evans," Hancock said. "I had to just reach into that dark room."

Davis also possessed a critical trait of jazz's better musicians in that "they stand up for what they believe in," Hancock said. "Miles stood up for social issues. It's being true to yourself, what you believe in. Miles had demons, but underneath there was this bright, caring human being. He wanted to make it so musicians could stand up for themselves."

As for the quality of Davis' music, "I saw him get physically ill because he had to walk on the stage and he wasn't feeling like himself." Also,

"The reason for him putting his back to the audience is the same reason a symphony conductor has his back to the audience," Hancock said. "He's conducting. Miles is having a conversation with the drummer and he facing the drummer. He's having a conversation with the bassist and he facing the bassist."

Of course, this being Miles, things weren't always on the straight and narrow.

"At one point he said 'How do you like my shoes,'" Miller said, slipping into a reasonable fascimile of Davis' famous hoarse whisper. "That's one story where he wasn't conducting anybody. He's like 'What size do you wear? Where can I get some?' I'm like 'I'm trying to concentrate on your music here.'"

Hancock, when asked about the things that pleased him most during his career, cited another offbeat encounter early in his dealings with Davis.

"I had just joined Miles' band—actually, I still had one gig to go before I joined—and he came down to the village gig to listen to me, and he said 'I want a ride back to your place," Hancock said, dropping into a reasonably impersonation of the trumpeter's hoarse whisper. "I said 'Miles, I got a car of my own.' He said 'It ain't a Maseratti.'"

"We got to the corner, and I looked at him and he looked at me-"

"No! You didn't drag race Miles?!' Miller interrupted incredulously.

"I was at the next corner before he even moved," Hancock finished. He lit a cigar in the car and waited for Miles to pulled alongside.

"'What is that?" the trumpet master whispered.

"I said 'It's an A.C. Cobra.'"

"He said 'Get rid of it.'"

"I said 'Why?'"

"He said 'It's too dangerous.'"

Not much chance of that, Hancock concluded, since it was the first car he bought with his own money — $6,000 from the check he got for Watermelon Man.

Just as the interview ended and people were gathering their things a bit of breaking news reached Miller that made people pause on their way to the exit.

"Hey y'all, listen," he said. "Herbie's wife, Gigi, just won $1,000 on the slot machines. So don't be messin' with the slot machines, because you know that's not going to happen again."

Cruisin' To A Different Beat

Gambling is far from the only way to lose money during sea days on a cruise.

The seemingly mandatory "inch of gold rush," "champaign art auction," "t-shirts from ports of call," "amber seminar," portrait and camera studio, and shopping promenade all go full-tilt on pretty much any vessel after being forced to sit dark while in port.

The difference between a cheap and a classy cruise is presentation.

A bargain-basement Carnival Cruise Lines voyage is a non-stop carnival barker marketing pitch, with PA speakers constantly blaring about new opportunities to buy, buy, buy. On the Rotterdam passengers are mostly left to find them on their own, with salesmanship limited to the daily printed bulletins and maybe a quiet mention included as part of the day's other activities. Bargain journeys also tend to charge more and for more things like the drinks they try to push in your hands and the "special" dining rooms, and issue dire warnings about the potential risks of taking shore excursions not booked through the ship's official (overpriced) offerings.

That doesn't mean the quality of the goods on classier ships is necessarily better.

I actually need a watch and wandered over to the "blowout" sale where supposedly $80 wrist shackles were selling for $29.95 (two for $49.95!). I have all the respect in the world for European clockmakers, but when the macho-looking dials of days, lunar cycles and other nonsense are painted on it's hard to think of anywhere but the sucker shops of Nassau. Last time I stopped by an "inch of gold" sale on another ship and asked to buy an inch for my wife back home I got a mocking look and forms to fill out in duplicate.

That's because, much as I'd like to just hand the jewelry girl a dollar, ships don't operate on a cash system. Instead passengers get a room key with a mandatory requirement of providing a credit card number for all extra onboard charges. A tipping fee of $10 a day is added immediately without consent (and they still suggest tipping your steward separately, plus service charges are added to everything from lattes to laundry). Other things add up shockingly fast even for those vowing to keep things bare bones. A $299 four- day Caribbean "bargain" is basically impossible to complete without spending at least twice that — and that's based on double occupancy; there's a 50 to 100 percent supplemental charge for traveling alone unless you're paired with a random cabinmate.

(This is going someplace jazz-related — stick with me)

Free activities are also plentiful, even if some are obviously designed to separate passengers from their money eventually. Gambling lessons, spa seminars, digital camera lessons, wine tastings, port lectures, cooking demonstrations in a culinary center, galley tours and an exploration speech "From Scandinavia to North America" by the ship's captain were all on the day's agenda. The Rotterdam also has one of the larger libraries of any cruise ship and a DVD selection probably equal to a small video store (players are in all rooms). More active recreational possibilities included volleyball, tennis, basketball. yoga and stretch classes. For teens there's an arcade and two youth-only clubs.

But walking around the ship, it becomes clear how different passengers on this trip are from a normal cruise.

There are, for instance, a few young tots brought by parents, but I'm not sure I've seen anyone between the ages of 8 and 18. There's few groups of older passengers playing bridge and other card games at tables in the quiet lounges. Even when busy the pool deck is a quiet hum — on cheaper cruises in particular there's a non-stop barrage of party music and games like the hairiest chest concert, and clusters of families and buddies gathered around coolers brought on board to avoid the ship's fees.


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