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2007 North Sea Jazz Cruise Day 8: School Daze With McCoy Tyner, Amateurs And A 'Ship Pianist'

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

Despite the questions some cruise ship passengers ask ("how high above sea level is this town?"), learning opportunities are prominent for people supposedly on a relaxing vacation.



Lectures, multi-day classes and even full-blown university courses can soak up time traditionally meant for algae facials and chocolate buffets. Some universities charter ships long-term for courses or as campus housing for students (where was that when I lived on cereal in large closet with a slightly crazy roommate?). Make fun of traditional subjects like cooking, pottery and computers, but medical and dental professionals can also get continuing education credit in-between port calls.

On the last day at sea for the inaugural North Sea Jazz Cruise, it was time for some closing lessons and final exams.

A discussion and evening concert by piano legend McCoy Tyner held master-class promise. Amateur players who brought instruments were tuning up for a spontaneous decision to hold a late-night jam session in the upper-level Crow's Nest lounge with bassist and cruise host Marcus Miller. Also, on a personal note, I finally sat down and got to know the most prolific — and unheralded — musician on the ship.

Miller got the day's music going with an early afternoon concert on the main stage in the Queen's Lounge. I wandered in about 1:45 p.m. and his band was playing the Beethoven composition "Moonlight Sonota" that made a favorable impression during his opening-night concert. Nice as that tune was, here it was getting much the same introduction and what sounded like mostly the same playing, which is when I took in the rest of the show as a pleasant background presence while I cranked away on the laptop.

Better people than me would take advantage of the chance to hear the different nuances in what was my fourth or fifth show featuring him ( for reasons Dan Brown explains so eloquently on Day 7). But I was there to hear the discussion with Tyner immediately afterward, a last-minute addition to the itinerary after a jazz history panel and Herbie Hancock interview two days earlier got enormously positive feedback and requests for more such sessions.

Miller started the discussion around 2:45 p.m. by introducing Tyner as the second of two pianists, Hancock being the other, whose tone is recognizable after hearing only a couple notes of a song (personal aside: sorry, but Chick Corea and several other names come immediately to mind). Part of the reason, Miller said, is Tyner continues to explore new territory decades after many musicians would be resting of their laurels.

"After the Coltrane period you didn't stop growing," said Miller, who calls the 1976 string ensemble project Fly With The Wind a "killer" example ( free samples). "A lot of guys, they would have kept playing John Coltrane for the rest of their life, even after he passed. But you kept going."

"It's like a lesson," Tyner said. "It's like going to school."

The best stories involved lessons from his youth in Philadelphia, when he started playing his mother's piano at the age of 13.

"Her piano was in her beauty shop," he said. "I remember having jam sessions in her shop. There'd be this tenor player sitting next to some lady under a dryer."

Bud Powell lived in the city and, sometime after Tyner turned 16, he said one of the major early milestones of his life occurred when "we followed him and got him to play" at the shop.

"I think he heard the piano or something, and he stopped to listen and I said 'Oh, my goodness,'" Tyner said.

"It was not really his dexterity, but his conviction," Tyner said, "You could tell music was an important thing in his life. He was a reclusive person. He didn't say much. But when he talked you listened, especially about music."

He remained amicable, but was notably more reserved talking about himself.

"What are you doing with your life now?" Miller asked.

"Just traveling around," Tyner said.

"We were just joking backstage that we musicians run into each other more in Europe than the United States," Miller said. "How is it for you in the United States? Are you still finding opportunities for you?"

"Yes."

"Jet lag?"

"It affects me a little, but I can still go to sleep whenever I need to," Tyner said.

"Usually with jazz there's not a big budget to make these albums and you have to get it down in a timely fashion," Miller said. "Before you were a leader how many times did you walk away and say, 'Man, I wish I could have done something different?'"

"No," Tyner said, getting a round of laughter.

An audience member asked during a question-and-answer period if Tyner is left-handed and, if so, how it affects his playing. Miller speculated it's the secret behind the pianist's dominating power chords. Tyner said it makes it easier "to finish off those bad pianos," but strength isn't the secret to good performance.

"I realize that with a good piano you don't need to smack it like that," he said. "You can be gentle with it."

A Master's Thesis On Peanut Butter And Roaches

Some lectures need no words.

The 4 p.m. afternoon concert in the scenic upper-level Crow's Nest lounge was Amsterdam alto saxophonist Benjamin Herman, a regular at the North Sea Jazz Festival whose early career achievement of competing with Chris Potter and Eric Alexander at the 1991 Thelonious Monk Competition is a good indicator of the company he's in (although I favor Potter as the best of that group). Herman's got that diamond-hard tone that's more smooth than growl and those chops that feel like he's taking on the masters who influenced him in double-time.

A capacity crowd, if not overflowing one, took in the show, a welcome thing since some high-quality regional artists aren't getting many listeners.

"Those are the revelations," said Bart Schneider, a St. Paul, Minn., author of the jazz-themed novel "Blue Bossa." "You see Bernard Herman and you realize he's just a star over here."

Herman's acoustic drums/bass/guitar quartet rewarded the audience with a set of aggressive progressive mainstream scholarly playing, but kept the mood loose with far more laid-back between-song comments.

"This next tune is for everybody who likes peanut butter," he said, introducing a song with a foreign- language name has to do with a phobia about the sticky stuff. Another based on the name of his record label, Roach Records, "is the result of years of torment, ladies." He said the Latin ballad "Would I Love You" was inspired by an arrangement performed by Harry James and Doris Day.

"She sings it from the original," Herman said. "She sounds like she hasn't had a boyfriend in years."

The song was a refresher on how simplicity can get an huge boost merely from strong technique. This is one of those times where my raw notes do a better job of capturing his work than my attempt at analysis: "Crisp, with a bit of extra growl to punctuate the end of some lines. I'm not really familiar with this song, but I almost feel like I can pick up the words his tone is so hard but articulate... whoa—at the end they switched this a hard four-beat screaming rock thing that turns into just a massive driving ending. Brave, but not sure this is the place for it."

Other pieces showed both individual prowess and group communication, with a series of ascending phrases and wordless scat by guitarist Anton Goudsmit countered by Herman's descending sax narratives on "Left Shoe, Right Shoe." Goudsmit vocals showed up again in a Jarrett-like fashion on "Do The Roach" (the label song), a bluesy, walking-beat composition where bassist Kasper Kalf built a sparse bass solo into alternating high- and low-fretboard stories. Drummer Joost Kroon demanded plenty of attention during a few maniacal solos, but they were more across-the-kit workouts than innovative rants.

The band got a deserved, albeit partial, standing ovation, and unlike many on-again off-again local bands the day at sea kept them from being a one-show wonder.

"We're playing again later," Herman said. "We're going to lock ourselves in our cabins and we hope to be sober."

Unedited from the notebook: "Whole thing is like that of a really good, solid, elevated club effort, halfway between pro and stellar. Sure, I've heard better gigs, but if this was a random night at a random club I'd come away more satisfied than most nights."

One mystery about why the onboard CD shop has so few selections — it's mostly Miller's sidemen like Dan Brown and Keith Anderson — was solved when people made the expected trek to take something by Herman home.

"It isn't available on the ship because we have to pay 30 percent commission," he said. "So everybody who goes to the festival will probably be able to find it cheaper in Rotterdam."

(For what it's worth, I grabbed several of his albums and Tyner's Fly With The Wind legally for a few bucks each from eMusic.com, yet another shameless plug for my favorite online store. Herman's no-words Web site is a horrible attempt at hip, but free samples of a wide range of his work can be heard by clicking the discs in his left hand.)

Final Lessons, Final Exam

Maybe the hardest thing about a legend's concert is meeting expectations.

Tyner is one of those rare players who, when I hear him live, am expecting to be schooled with stuff that goes over my head like a foreign-language immersion class. Coming out feeling like I've given it my full concentration and understood a couple of new concepts is the goal. But performances have been getting mixed reviews in recent years and his 75-minute, no-encore evening show on the Rotterdam's main stage made it clear why. The fundamentals were in his fingers, but not the ingenuity.

I spent a day with a guilty nagging that my impressions couldn't possibly be true, but talking to a few others — some of whom noted Tyner's been in poor health the past year or so, sometimes playing sparingly at gigs — convinced me I wasn't completely misguided.

"I can tell he's still fragile," said Bobby Sparks, the keyboardist in Miller's current band.

That said, the evening with his quartet had its moments.

The foursome only brought the opening song (missed the title) to a mid-tempo simmer, with Tyner chording leisurely phrases without much space. At that point I was hoping it might be the opening salvo of a set that built and deconstructed intensity throughout the entire performance, not just by the song, certainly an interesting contrast to the hit-em-over-the-head introductions most bands rely on.

"Ballad For Asia" didn't discourage the thought, as Tyner's playing was notably more lush and dramatic, this time throwing in more non-sequential note flurries as he sort of coasted over bassist Gerald Cannon and drummer Eric Kamau Gravatt like a surfer on a rolling wave rather than an X-treme one. Gravatt, who's played with far too many legends to excuse my previous total ignorance of him, grabbed attention and respect quickly when they picked up the tempo on the next song with a solo highlighting various sections of his setup (notes: "I'm never really sure what's polyrhythmic but, wow, he's definitely got enough simultaneous language going to qualify").

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