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:

"The press liaison for Celebrity's P. R. firm...(said) 'The people on board—the staff—are really part of one big family. You probably noticed this when you were on the ship. They really love what they're doing and love serving people and they pay attention to what everybody wants and needs.' This was not what I observed. What I observed was that the Nadir was one very tight ship, run by an elite cadre of very hard- assed Greek officers and supervisors, that the staff lived in mortal terror of these bosses, who watched them with enormous beadmess at alI times, and that the crew worked almost Dickensianly hard, too hard to feel truly cheery about it. My sense was that Cheeriness was up there with Celerity and Servility on the clipboarded evaluation sheets the Greek bosses were constantly filling out on the crew. My sense was that a crewman could get fired for a pretty small lapse, and that getting fired by these Greek officers might well involve a spotlessly shined shoe in the ass and then a really long swim."

An Embarrassingly Great Gig

Ask in five days about my favorite performance of the cruise and this will probably be it.

The 4 p.m. show by [em] in the Crow's Nest obviously wasn't to everyone's taste, given the sparse crowd that lost some overwhelmed listeners, but the acoustic trio brought a modernist dialect of the highest order to the room for 90 minutes. Like the radical thinkers of ancient times debating Earth's shape and if reincarnation exists, a passionate stir-up of emotions has to be expected—but hopefully their genius ultimately gets full credit.

I'm going to skip song titles, since a lot of them were in German and I didn't catch them, and offer a linear (if somewhat random) sampling of my raw, politically incorrect notes:

  • "Love at first sight—or, more accurately, within two bars of their opening."

  • "Hugely demonstrative and interactive; very highest order. Not well-attended and people are leaving. Unbelievable, but says a great deal about the cruise's clintele and what they're looking for."

  • "Piano (Michael Wollny) and bass (Eva Kruse-Lijeqvist) into a big conversation, group gets into a free-for- all shoutdown, piano wins with an overriding argument that he backs down into a lush and lyrical calmer without going far off-color. It's like my favorite modern art museum painting, where the guy shows both classic masterpieces and wild modern stuff side-by-side in a room, which shows an incredible mastery of multiple techniques.

  • Pianist's feet are dancing wildly beneath him nearly all the time, bassist has a grin that shows real enjoyment and not just that cheesy Stage Smile."

  • "Drummer's screwing, unscrewing things, constantly making adjustments to his kit. Now he's down, takes over and dominates with the wrath of Khan while the pianist is wandering mellowly along the high notes like a drunkard staggering down the street."

Maybe by now you get the idea I thought they were OK. If not, the clincher is my Most Embarrassing Moment for this trip. The infallible sportswriters' credo is "no cheering from the pressbox," but I stood at the end and shook drummer Eric Reinhard Schaefer's hand before realizing he was walking not off the stage, but to the center of it for the final group bow. That earned me a round of good-natured ribbing.

While the diminished audience was a bummer, it was encouraging to see who remained. Right beside me in front was Frank Newdick, 77, a retired caterer, and wife June ("a bit younger"), of York, England. They said they've been jazz fanatics since they were teenagers, but never been stuck to the players and eras of their past.

"We find ourselves liking things from five to 10 years ago," he said. "We're always moving forward."

Wollny, echoing comments I've heard from players at other quality but lightly attended gigs, said the size of the audience didn't matter nearly as much as reaching those who were there.

"If only five or six people are totally emotionally involved, that's great," he said.

Seduction Or Snoozer?

A good-size crowd, but not the largest of the cruise, showed up for Dee Dee Bridgewater's headline concert in the ship's main theater. The 6 p.m. show started 20 minutes late due to soundboard problems, although she sought to keep the mood light with the opening line "we got stuck in traffic." Shortly after, she said she might as well take advantage of the captive audience.

"Since we are here with nowhere to go, we can get a little more intimate," she said.

Hopefully she felt seduction was the connection she made, because from my seat in the back it merely seemed quiet—and even if Bridgewater was Even if Bridgewater felt parts of her show were, at others she clearly the lack of energy.

"My goodness. it's so quiet," she said. "I think there would be drinks and a party."

"There is," a lone woman in the audience pipped up. But apparently in a different location and/or time.

"How are you feeling?" Bridgewater asked, the classic inquiry of a performer expecting to get some kind of vigorous reply. The response here was near silence, something I've never witnessed. She wondered if passengers were eating too much or feeling lingering effects from the harsh rolling earlier in the cruise, but the best optimistic argument is listeners were content to relax in a mellow cocktail lounge without the need to expend more energy in the midst of a crowded itinerary. On the other hand, she droned on so long about intimacy, sex and such things introducing the next song I turned out.

The concert was not bad—my raw notes call it "a pro gig up one level"—meaning everyone showed and made an effort beyond executing their familiar chops. Bridgewater worked hard in her role as an entertainer, scatting aggressively during solos and moving around the stage to engage the band and audience. But an example of why things kept feeling bogged down came when she introduced a song with a promising narrative about discovering her "African" roots.

"I figured I went through 'colored,' 'negro,' 'black'—that was rough and then we accepted it," she said. "Then all of a sudden in the middle of the night I was in France and I heard we are no longer 'black,' we are 'African American.' I said, 'I'll be damned. That's a long time to get to this place...I got Irish, I got German — that's all I could (trace). So I turned to music because I decided that's what I needed to complete my circle."

After talking about focusing on music from all of Africa, but focusing specifically on a Western region I wasn't familiar with (and I've been to Namibia and surrounding region), she launched into the song—"Afro Blue." I like the song, but it was an ordinary arrangement and certainly nothing exotic after the buildup.

More successful was her discussion and performance of "Footprints," or rather what the Wayne Shorter classic became after she wrote some lyrics and sent them to the saxophonist.

"He decided we should give it another title so there would be no confusion," she said. "I always thought he was speaking about footprints in Africa and finding one's self. He said that's what he was essentially speaking about."

The result, "Long Time Ago," was a mellow ballad with a rumbling undercurrent and occasional hint of the famous original theme. As with other ballads, she sang it richly and huskily, but without some of the syrupy "seduction" qualities of more well-known standards, getting one of the best crowd responses of the night.

She kept the positive vibe by going up-tempo on the closing "Cherokee," earning a standing ovation and long call for an encore. But a final letdown awaited the crowd, as she was perhaps the only main stage performer not to offer one.

"Thank you, (but) I've got to get off the stage," she said, coming out for a moment. In fairness, this may have been due to the late start, and her reminder of what's still to come offered encouraging perspective of the trip as a whole.

"I hope I'll see you all in Rotterdam. It'll be a totally different show, a totally different person standing in front of you," she said.

But while the general audience reaction was positive, the popular/explorative divide again was evident.

"I've heard high school trios that sound better than that," said one man at a subsequent show featuring one of the "lesser-knowns" with a sparse audience.

I didn't think it was that bad—her all-acoustic ensemble did a good, professional job of giving her a lively foundation without getting in the way of her being the center of attention. Bart Schneider, a St. Paul, Minn., author who wrote the novel "Blue Bossa," said the concert offered an interesting contrast to the aggressive lounge performance by Roberto Gambarini's quartet a few days earlier (I missed all but a few minutes due to the rough seas, but it seemed pretty impressive).

"It was interesting—Dee Dee Bridgewater and being 100 percent diva, a great show woman—and Roberto not having that and having a fine voice," he said. "I was interested by that and by who played the big room."

The contrast continued with the late-night lounge shows, with Miller "and friends" doing another fusion gig in the mid-level Ocean Bar and African guitarist/vocalist Lionel Loueke a solo gig in the top-level Crow's Nest. Loueke isn't a newcomer to the jazz scene—he's played with Hancock for a while and has well- acclaimed albums as a leader, but was clearly second banana for the night owls.

Qualities that made his center-stage moments among the highlights of the Hancock concert the night before were flushed out further here, as Loueke allowed guitar and wide-ranging vocal noises to exchange foreground/background roles to show each at their dominant best, in addition to the expected intertwining in a variety of concepts. Much of his composing is more complex than I really can absorb or describe well here (one of Hancock's better lines was how his band and potential dancers would break their necks trying to play a particularly tricky piece in 17/4 time), but the general mood was surprisingly accessible: mellow, instantly engaging hooks like tongue clicks, exceptional use of harmonic processors and other sounds to counter the simple acoustic timbre but complex fingers of his guitar.

By way of comparison, I ventured downstairs to the rather more crowded crowded mid-level Ocean Bar, where Miller "And Friends" were playing "Maputo." Those friends may have included Sanborn, who I'm told was at some of Miller's club gigs, but I couldn't elbow my way in to find out for sure. Actually, it'd be more accurate to say I didn't feel like making the effort.

Coming on Day 8: School Daze At Sea With McCoy Tyner, the Amateur Musicians and the Anonymous "Ship Pianist."

(By the way, in the unlikely event anyone cares, the "Harry Potter" theological question from the end of the Day 6 blog that's hidden in today's is about "if reincarnation exists.")

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