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

Mark Sabbatini By

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'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.

Casino activity seems light and audiences are light to nonexistent at the non-jazz musical venues. For many of the ship's regular musicians this is a dream cruise, because they're not performing at all, still getting paid, and spending the voyage getting to meet and hear the jazz musicians passengers are paying dearly for.

Crew making the food, always one of the heaviest promoted aspects of any cruise, are almost certainly getting a nasty jolt to their regular but rigorous schedule. One of the executive chefs said dining habits are notably different, with almost nobody at breakfast and a rush during the midnight meal since nearly everyone is attending late-night shows and sleeping late. It's hard to tell if they've made any adjustments to compensate, but the late night serving line seems to be down to scraps after the first hour of a two-hour stint, right about the time a lot of people are leaving the evening's final music sets.

The normal schedule will continue when the Rotterdam docks for the North Sea Jazz Festival since the fare includes admission to that event and the ship's cabins are serving as lodging (an unbelievably nice benefit, since vast numbers of people are stuck making two- to three-hour rides on a combination of trams and trains from surrounding cities). Obviously the ship will be deserted in the evenings and experience a crush of activity around 2:30-3 a.m. when everyone returns. Since the late-night serving line closes at 2 a.m., it's not hard to imagine the room service crew carrying a knee-buckling number of trays during what would normally be a quiet part of the shift since it's the only food option available 24 hours a day. (The late menu, incidentally, is pathetic with the only substantive fare being two types of omelets, a burger (no fries, only chips) and a club sandwich).

Introducing...Guys Who Shouldn't Need Introductions

Speaking of the festival, this is a good time to mention The Grid.

This all-important chart is the guide to who's playing where each day of the festival. The headliners who require special tickets that sell out quickly despite their significant cost are in large print at the top. Underneath are 16 rows of artists whose stature is represented in steadily smaller font sizes. To cite an example in descending thirds, David Sanborn, E.S.T., Stefano Bollani, the Dimitar Bodurov Trio and the Hypnotic Brass Ensemble progress from second to last the opening night grid.

The listings are not a reflection of pure talent.

But as I wrote in a feature about the festival two years ago, performers near the bottom of the grid often play to half- or near- empty rooms, which personally is a source of both pleasure (away from the melee, intimacy with the players) and pain (so many people missing things like the Best Of Young Dutch Jazz competition).

Two players aboard the ship, performing on the same day at the festival in a lower-tier room with a theme of "Introducing..." showed why they're worthy of much better.

But the first performer of the afternoon at sea, accordionist Stian Carstensen, doesn't even have festival billing, a curiosity since he's not one of the musicians doing a same-day on/off gig from their home city. Not knowing the grids at the time, it never occurred to me to ask if he's involved with the festival or just along for the ride.

His 4 p.m. solo concert in the panoramic Crow's Nest lounge at the top fore of the ship featured a progressive twist to traditional and modern songs common to accordion from a wide-ranging number of countries, supplemented constantly with a variety of percussive hand slaps, bird-like whistling chirps and other noises. It was novel enough to appeal to most people who normally don't like accordion and skilled enough to appeal to most people who do, leaving only the hardcore traditionalists and absolute naysayers behind.

He frequently mixed and improvised traditional concepts on-the-fly, sometimes splicing them from competing audience requests. He tackled a French waltz, something he said he's not familiar with, with a series of fluttering passages so quick they sounded like soundscape musings from a vibrato analogue synth, adding to the surrealism by using sour notes for transition. On another he tried to mesh Norwegian and Mexican polka concepts (roughly the equivalent of matchmaking Wagner with a mariachi), not quite getting a clear dialect in either.

At one point he got a request for a jazz tune.

"That's what I'm trying to do," he said, getting a laugh from the crowd.

My opinion is he's right, making his playing a beautiful illustration of the beauty and expanse of the genre. Most of the random chat from the audience afterward was about the range of techniques never heard before, but his work also went beyond gimmicks as, like Hancock or Corea, he stretched the classic boundaries of his instrument to fit rather than disguise his talents.

There's almost nothing about him I could find online, although a lukewarm AAJ concert review mentions his "reading words at random from a Finnish dictionary" as part of a Norwegian/Bulgarian quintet performance. He also has at least one album available.

Hancock was the featured performer of the evening, but his guest under different circumstance would be considered downright rude — he nearly stole the show.

African guitarist/vocalist Lionel Loueke's presence became obvious by the second song, the ubiquitous "Watermelon Man." Hancock said his band was playing a new arrangement based on a 1970s song Loueke wrote called "Seventeens" because of its time signature in that meter.

"If you're trying to dance to (his tune) you break your neck, so we're not playing that," Hancock said. "It has nothing to do with you (the audience). We can't play that. But I had to take a piece of that and stick it onto a piece that had nothing to do with that"

They took it at the classic tempo, but with a gait that indeed seemed to possess a sinister intent to trip something over. Straight and unedited from my notes: "All those kids playing this in school ensembles should be saturated in this as a lesson in how they could be doing the same song in different ways. different. Honestly, I'm having trouble recognizing it and I spent hours and hours with it on Aebersold's Hancock tape." Eventually they ventured into less radical territory, allowing the audience to absorb the classic theme in something approaching recognizable fashion.

Loueke's influence on even the most familiar of other songs was similar, tossing in quiet and sparse wordless vocals on the opening "Cantalope Island" that, even though heavy with choral processing, sounded remarkably authentic ethnically and meshed astoundingly well harmonically with Hancock's intense two- handed chord-pounding solo.

Miller, playing with band as he has with nearly all of the featured performers, showed a proficiency for acoustic-like straight-ahead thinking playing his electric on "Maiden Voyage," a welcome change of pace from his usual slap-happy attention grabbers. Again, the unedited notes: "He's showing some nice pitch and harmonic supplements on a quick and progressive solo, and probably the biggest compliment I can give him is I can't compare it with another straight-ahead player. As always, the sound and thoughts are clearly his."

Afterward, the focus returned to Loueke.

"You didn't know, Marcus, that Lionel is an amazing chef," Hancock said. "Every days there's a performance he makes an amazing soup for that performance."

The "exotic soup" for this evening came in the form of a song where Loueke started unaccompanied, vocalizing harmonies and clicking to a muted unplugged-like multi-part guitar cushion of simultaneous strums and clipped note plucks. The full band launched into a heavy grove after several minutes, turning into a bit of ethnic fusion more fun than most such efforts, but considerably less engaging than his solo work.

A similar above-average group treatment of "Camilion" closed the show, with Miller grabbing a lot of attention with some high-pitch slaps so sharp and hard they resonated like gunshots — something I haven't hadn't before despite decades of exposure to his fusion work. The whole show was a crowd pleaser, but I also noticed some pretty sparsely occupied rows of seats—an utterly depressing thought for a landmark artist on an evening when all of the passengers were aboard (notes: "if these people are at the jewelry sales and blackjack tournament there is no hope").

A second gig by Carstensen was one of the two late-nighters, so I headed upstairs to the Crow's Nest to hear pianist Moncef Genoud's trio. He and Loueke might be getting low-tier love during the festival, but the pianist did his part in admirably showing passengers the caliber of talent most will miss. A breed of understated straight-ahead I'll call "not Evans, but in the family tree" made for a setting of quiet intelligence suitable for relaxing without worry of drowsiness. Like I'll do at home with Brad Mehldau and Tord Gustavsen, I opened a thermos of porridge and read the New York Times I'd downloaded for free from the internet cafe earlier (the Times sponsors the cafe and they offer this as a glorious unpromoted bonus). As for my job responsibilities of evaluating the nuance effectiveness of minor-seventh cross-hand stabs deceptively disguising the plot twist of 6th over 13th intervals? You gotta be kidding me. Go watch the new "Harry Potter" movie and e-mail me an essay contrasting its potential for conveying the theology of modern Verdicism if you want to complain.

(Actually, it's not as ridiculous or difficult as it sounds. Do some research and look for the question at issue hidden somewhere in tomorrow's post.)

Coming on Day 7: Taking Aim At The Audience

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