2007 North Sea Jazz Cruise Day 7: Taking Aim At The Audience

Mark Sabbatini By

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They traveled 500 miles in one day to come aboard for 90 minutes and play one of the best gigs of the cruise. Their reward? A near-empty lounge with probably the lowest audience.

Two members of the German hyper-avant trio [em] made the long trip to Hamburg where Holland America Line's Rotterdam was docked as part of the inaugural North Sea Jazz Cruise. Winner of the 2007 "Most Promising International Newcomer of The Year Ronnie Scott's Jazz Award, their music is something The Bad Plus (a personal fav) might tackle if they grew up with Wagner (ditto) instead of ABBA (not so much) But a top-level lounge maybe 20 percent full at the 4 p.m. start actually dwindled to a crowd that would fit in a modest living room by the end.

"What happened here was amazing," said Miecea Ciurdar, a passenger from Bucharest, Romania. "There are no American listeners here."

Jazz is obviously a common passion for the 900 passengers willing to pay several thousand dollars to cruise through Scandinavia from July 5-12 before docking in the ship's namesake city for the three-day North Sea Jazz Festival. But there's clearly defined lines of interest—sometimes contentious—as some listeners and even a few participants say most aboard seem more interested in familiar comforts like Marcus Miller and Dee Dee Bridgewater instead of being open to new and more creative artists. Strong arguments also exist at the other extreme from those questioning if certain performers are really true to the spirit of jazz, not to mention the deeper insight into an artist's work by hearing it repeatedly in concentrated doses..

Not a new argument to be sure, but one magnified with the intense focus on jazz within the tiny village-like confines of a 778-foot passenger ship. It's easy to question why beyond-capacity crowds pile in to hear Miller play what seems like the same songs from his new album for the fifth time while there's plenty of vacant seats a few decks above for an exotic African guitarist who at times stole the stage during a solid Herbie Hancock show. Or why passengers left in droves from Medeski, Martin and Wood's main-stage concert.

Or why the crowd seemingly having the most fun are taking in arguably the least musically artistic performer.

Nightly shows of tire(less/some) showtunes and standards by the unnamed "ship pianist" in a small, nondescript lounge featuring busker-quality ivory mashing supporting blaring vocals with an impertinent regard for pitch. All he did was entertain the only audience regularly grooving and interacting more than superficially.

"We are only a couple of cheese farmers from Holland," declared Klaas Bloem, "We are only a couple of cheese farmers from Holland," declared Klaas Bloem to an inquiry, my introduction to the retired Air Force officer dressed in a light-pink button-down shirt and dark pink pants. He, his wife and another couple they met on board look like frequent cruisers who spend every night in similar lounges, but he said this is his first voyage and he's a longtime jazz fan who's finding too many performers are straying from the fundamentals of what makes the genre great in search of personal glory.

"At times it seems like they are just playing and not listening to each other," he said.

The other major problem is an exact opposite—too much repetition not just by artists appearing multiple times, but within songs doing little but repeating a riff, Bloem said. On the new heavy fusion "Blast" being played at or near the beginning of shows, Bloem said he's hearing little but the bassist slap the same vamp throughout.

"If you play that 36 times, I'm bored," he said. Listen to someone like Bach for 36 passages, he said, and there's no repeating phrases despite a maintaining of conceptual consistency. Ideal jazz, Bloem argues, should take a theme and develop it broadly and collaboratively, while remaining true to the roots of the idea.

The arguments of too much repetition and too little discipline generate their own rebuttal from those saying it's also an example of not keeping the ears and mind fully open. Dan Brown, Miller's guitarist and music coordinator for the cruise, said listeners can gain more knowledge and enjoyment hearing the best musicians several times than the same exposure to lesser talents, even if it's a new experience.

"When these cruises are put together to be cost efficient they have a core unit that plays for all the artists that come on," he said. "So when you have someone like Marcus that's really dominant...(listeners) are going to be more aware of the sameness as compared to the next tier (in recognition) down."

Appreciating such performances means listening for differences in technique as well as solos over multiple takes, where first-tier artists like Miller earn their reputation, Brown said.

"I would rather hear Marcus and Marcus' band too much than hear the next tier down too much," he said.

In an e-mail a couple of days later Brown elaborated.

"The thing that makes people great and compelling is their individuality and personal uniqueness (style)," he wrote. "These attributes are generally achieved by a repetition of tendencies and decisions within one's personal lexicon (i.e. Shakespeare iambic pentameter, Monet's impressionism, etc.). I could spend a whole day just looking at Renoir's in the Louvre or listening to old B.B. King records (even listening to the same tune over and over). It's about the artistry in the expression, not the immediate gratuity of having 500 cable channels to browse."

I found the artistic expression lacking in MMW's concert with guitarist John Scofield, but many in the audience, who weren't that numerous to begin with, found it more grating and left. That angered Mark Ruffin, co-host of "Listen Here" on WFMT radio in Chicago, during a jazz history panel discussion the next day.

"I thought it was a disgrace for people to walk out of Medeski, Martin and Wood because they closed their eyes to something new," he said, getting a fair amount of enthusiastic applause.

Some in the audience protested an excessively loud and harsh mix was the real problem, the result of a sound engineer making a same-day flight from the U.S. to Europe, which compresses the eardrums to the point effective judgement is nearly impossible. Ruffin agreed the mix probably motivated some of the early departees, but he and others interviewed said it wasn't the primary factor.

"What happened with Medeski, Martin and Wood was understandable," said Eric Alan, producer and presenter of Jazz Rendezvous on Radio 2000 in Capetown, South Africa, as well as editor of jazzrendezvous.co.za. "It was wired a little loud and it went over the heads of a lot of people who were on the ship."

A wide variety in tastes is inevitable since passengers are from more than 30 countries, probably double the norm for similar cruises, Alan said.

"I think this ship is the United Nations of jazz," he said.

Still, unmistakable discoveries of new boundaries are occurring during even the seemingly safest of performances. Alan said smooth jazz saxophonist Kirk Whalum "is still stuck in his thing," but the hour-long gospel jazz service he led the first Sunday of the cruise with a number of headline musicians—including a sit-in on organ by Miller's father, Myles, who gave up a music career to raise his family—was an artistic and popular triumph.

"I thought it was a great concert," he said. "I'm not a religious person by any means, but the music speaks to everyone. My mother, she's 80 and she was completely blown away. She's neer heard anything like that before. She's had a very different music experience at church in her past."

So Much Beer, So Little Merriment

The Rotterdam's final port call before reaching its namesake city for the North Sea Jazz Festival was Hamburg, Germany's second-largest city and the largest city in the European Union that is not a nation capital, according to Wikipedia. Depending on the translation, the name means "pasture-" or "shore- castle" (Wikipedia), or "fairly dull place that's a good hub for getting to Hanover, home of a great botanical garden, amusement park, architecture and the second-largest Oktoberfest in the world" (me).

But after a full day at sea and another one the next day, most passengers abandoned ship for a good part of the extended stop between 8 a.m. and midnight. Not to add more judgmentalism, but the tours offered were some of the drabbest of any port: first on the list and most expensive ($174) was a bus ride past City Hall and the warehouse quarter, a traditional German lunch, then a riverboat ride accompanied by a glass of beer. At the low end ($49), passengers were taken bused past City Hall, the Warehouse Quarter and the Stock Exchange without any stops.

I stayed aboard to work on these updates since they're getting further behind by the day. Also, besides the pleasure of the increasingly large number of people stopping by my regular table in the library coffee shop to chat, there's getting caught up on the news with the free access to the New York Times web site (among the headlines—the cruise industry is seeing a big increase in passengers jumping from ships because they're drunk or suffering some other plague of idiocy).

There's not much activity today, although go to the cabin levels and the stewards are working feverishly doing everything from wiping even the slightest smudge from the long hallway bulkheads to cleaning rooms three or four times daily. Leave for any length of time without the "Do Not Disturb" sign out and every wrinkle from sitting on your bed, every bit of trash you've left behind and any dishes you've used are nowhere to be found. Use a bathrobe and it's refolded origami-style into some new animal each time.

Also, they are always, always smiling.

I've done plenty of resort work and have a lot of sympathy for the ordeals a lot of those stewards go through, not to mention they're usually from impoverished cultures and sending much of their pay to their families. Probably the best description I've ever seen of their situation, if I may indulge because I think everybody taking a cruise should read it, is this footnote in the January 1996 Harper's article "Shipping Out" by David Wallace:


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