Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Nem um dia

I’ve found this little CD store in Miami, underneath Marshall’s. On first glance it’s rather unimpressive – Marvin Gaye is filed into their jazz section, for instance, and their hip-hop section has precious little Blackalicious, The Roots, or anything other than the modern radio-ready pap. Venture into their Latin section, though (categorized by style and/or location) and many gems turn up. So far I have purchased Bebo Valdes’ Bebo de Cuba, his two-disc “masterwork” (a full big band suite and a three-horn & rhythm blowing session); Jorge Ben Jor’s MTV Acoustica DVD; and Djavan Ao Vivo on DVD as well. The Valdes disc is in heavy rotation now, and the Ben Jor DVD is fantastic, but I was most impressed by the Djavan DVD.

Kerry Politzer recommended Djavan to me when we were both at Banff last summer. When I got back to Montreal, I went on a search that led me to his first two records, Djavan and Alumbramento. (The general consensus on his music is that those two records are his apotheosis, and it’s all downhill from there.) The DVD focuses on his more recent work, though there are songs from that period as well. While I wouldn’t necessarily say Djavan’s music has gone on a downwards trajectory, the music has become simpler as he’s aged, and as one critic said, has fused Brazilian music with pop and hip-hop more than his earlier records which reflected the jazz and funk influence. One could draw a parallel with Sting’s development (compare Dream of the Blue Turtles with Sacred Love). The DVD was filmed in 2002 in a sold out stadium in Rio, and the audience is singing along with his melodies, which are catchy but not necessarily simple or repetitive. His forms are often unconventional by American pop standards, but the audience knows them like the back of their hands. Djavan lets the band stretch out, much like the space Sting gives to Branford Marsalis or Chris Botti, and they are warmly received. This further strengthens my intrigue into the Latin/Brazilian attitude and response towards music, especially as compared to the North American relationships with the art.

Water water everywhere

Unlike Pat, I haven’t found it easy to blog from the ship. Oddly enough, I’m on his original Cruise Ship X, with some of the same band members. It is indeed a small musical community. I’ve been on the ship for nearly a month, the time frame after which I’ve been told one can begin to form opinions on the cruise ship experience.

My first cruise was filled with orientation and training – not anything musical, mind you, but more of the environmental/safety sort. It’s important information, to be sure – essential for one’s survival aboard the vessel – but the way it is carried out is often redundant. Often, neither the trainers nor many of the students speak English as a first language, so there is the element of repetition to make sure things are clear, as well as the attempt to decipher various different accents and capabilities in the English language. This is the reason training sessions are scheduled for, and always take, three to four hours.

I lost track of time quite quickly, as I was warned. I now tell days by which port we’re in, not by dates. I did remember Mother’s Day.

I have been fortunate enough to visit each port at least once, and I am slowly forming a tan (and not through crustacean-esque burns as some of my Canadian colleagues are acquiring). Grand Cayman is quite quaint, though it loses its appeal quickly, especially if I’m not in a beach mood. I’m not a snorkel enthusiast or even a strong swimmer, so those attractions are not quite up my alley. Key West is similar in a much more American or Canadian way. It reminded me of the Unionville Village north of Toronto. I was introduced to a used bookstore in Key West, and on our next stop there I plan on returning. Among other finds, I finally located some Hunter S. Thompson (Hey Rube, a compendium of his columns for and probably most notable for the fact that it contains his ruminations on September 11). I’ve only been to Jamaica once, and on my future visits I’d like to avoid the tourist traps, but have so far failed – Margaritaville and the ReggaeXplosion hall of fame. Next time in Jamaica I’m definitely finding a way to either do the Bob Marley bus tour, or just split a cab to his house (now converted into a Rastafarian church). The tour is alluring in many ways – not just for the music and the history but to actually get out of the city and into the hills of Kingston. Another item on my Jamaican to-do list is to find some out of the way record stores and see what gems I can find. Blue Mountain coffee is a must, as well.

When we hit Calica last time, a few of us went out to the Mayan ruins of Tulum. We didn’t do a tour, we just walked around admiring the view and the iguanas that seamlessly blended into the stone towers surrounding us. There is a natural beach below the ruins, which we spent most of our time on. A tour guide came by and yelled out that the ruins closed in 15 minutes. We didn’t see everything, but most of it. We also stumbled across a little roadside restaurant at happy hour – 2 for 1 Cuba Libres, and a large plate of fajitas for 40-odd pesos.

I am enjoying the fresh air and being on the water. Luckily we haven’t hit seriously rough seas yet, though a couple of days ago the boat was rocking hard enough for cancellation of shows to be a possibility. The weather centres are predicting hurricane season to start early this year (June 1st at the absolute latest) so the adventure and intrigue may increase in short order.

Musically, I’m rather ambivalent about the cruise ship experience. On the one hand, playing every night is quite beneficial and is an opportunity rarely found on land. Also, the production shows we’re doing revolve mostly around musical theatre or 1950s and ‘60s rock – music I grew up on but haven’t had a chance to play since high school. On the other hand, I’m feeling a little bit straitjacketed for multiple reasons: I don’t have the multitude of ensemble opportunities I had back at McGill (both for writing and playing), and the band’s fallen into the rut of playing the same charts cruise in and cruise out because of inefficient rehearsals. I also haven’t been able to practice – there’s a multitude of pianos around the ship, but even when we’re in port and the passengers are out, the radios are left on. In other words, I’m trying to practice Beethoven and Monk with Alicia Keys above my head. It doesn’t work. That said, one of my other acquisitions from the bookstore in Key West was Piano Pieces by Russell Sherman. It’s a rather whimsically metaphorical, yet in-depth, treatment of piano technique. I gather he’s on faculty at NEC. I’m reading it in lieu of a real practice regimen. He parades his vocabulary around a little too much for my liking, in addition to trotting out various allusions to mythology, the Bible and sports, but it is a very interesting perspective on the instrument and music in general.

That said, the MD and I work quite well together and most of the band is really quite solid. There are some notable exceptions, and to that end all I will say is that I will never again take for granted that other musicians will have similar frames of reference to mine. I’m trying to stay positive in the light of some of these more disheartening musical events, though it is draining. I suppose it would be more taxing to get caught in the negativity. I’ve also got pretty much carte blanche to arrange whatever tunes I want for the band, and the dancers, techs and band alike are pumped for the fact that this ship has a full eight-piece band for the first time in about a year (if not more). They were a quintet before I signed on, and within two cruises after my joining we were complete.

I’m trying to be diligent about composition, and I do have the goal of writing a chamber piece for some sort of double reed orchestration (most likely oboe, bassoon and piano), as well as setting groundwork for more big band music, but it’s been slow going. I have a couple of melodic fragments that might have potential. I just need to get down to business. My roommate is the DJ at the disco, a vocalist and former music industry insider from Chicago who came up in the 50s and 60s, and worked with some big soul stars in the 1980s. He’s got a lot of stories and has been really inspiring, working away on GarageBand in his free time. I’ve been swapping music with both him and my bandmates, and it’s been quite the blast.