18 January 2013

Enrichment Voyage, Part 2: A Little Night Music

Location: At sea, en route from Nassau, Bahamas to Montego Bay, Jamaica
Today’s telling detail: The crowd’s sudden hush

The piano bar on Deck 6 is all but empty. There are about six of us including me, Sandra Day O'Connor, and a few of her friends. No one else, possibly because many people are still in the dining room, just down the hall, lingering over the first of three formal dinners we'll have on this voyage. At least a few cruise-ship traditions/expectations/stereotypes have carried over to the MV Explorer, and formal dinners are one of them, even if "formal" here is defined fairly loosely. A piano bar is also expected, of course, although this one has a sign above the black grand piano labeling this a study area named after a Semester At Sea donor.

But for this voyage, at least, it's a real piano bar with a real pianist, David, an Englishman with a tan blazer, a grey mustache, and low-key demeanor, even when he's playing--no body-rocking showmanship here, just sublime music. That's not to say he isn't graceful--he is, emphatically, his hands flowing across the keyboard like water over rocks, effortless and mesmerizing. 

This evening, he's playing the classics. I think I recognize some Gershwin, some Cole Porter, maybe some Hoagie Carmichael, probably some Nat King Cole. But I don't really know. The songs sound awfully familiar to me though I don't recall the lyrics or the title of most--they're tunes I've heard in the background of countless movies, or maybe at my grandparents' house years ago, or possibly ... Well, I'm not sure where I've heard them, but some sort of Nostalgia Lobe in my brain is buzzing in the most pleasing way.

For a few numbers, David's wife, Leanne, joins him on vocals. She's every bit as good, her voice lush, her phrasing expressive. She sings what she says is the first song she ever sang for David, “Embraceable You," and then we all sing “Ain't Misbehavin'." Well, everyone else sings, because they know all the words, while I kind of mumble until we get to the chorus, at which point I finally join in, shyly: "Ain't misbehavin', sending all my somethingsomethingsomething!" 

A few people walk by, just leaving dinner, and sit to listen. Many of them are quite nicely dressed--men in suits, women in cocktail dresses, not the usual ship attire.

Leanne puts down her microphone and goes to sit down, to which Sandra Day O'Connor says, "You should go sing some more”

Leanne laughs and says the only thing you can say to that: “Yes, your honor.”

I see a large and especially well-dressed group coming down the hall, a couple of dozen students from Morehouse College, who are on the ship as a sort of December term. Several of the young men are wearing maroon blazers with the Morehouse insignia.

Leanne finally has permission to take a rest, and David is between songs. One of the Morehouse men asks if he can sing something. David shrugs. Sure, if it's a song he knows, too.

"How about 'Amazing Grace'?" asks the student. He's tall, in a black suit, with an orange and navy blue bowtie.

He picks up the mic and looks at the ground, suddenly nervous. I'm nervous for him. It's a song we all know and have heard sung brilliantly. No pressure or anything.

He looks at David, takes a breath, puts the mic to his mouth, and closes his eyes.

What happens next will become shipboard lore for the next week. Did you hear about ... ? Were you there? Was anyone actually there? Did it really happen?

I was there. It actually happened. He was absolutely astonishing, his voice confident but with a plaintive edge, each word seeming to carry the weight of the world, beautifully.

There is not a dry eye in the place by the time he gets to the end. He motions to David to do it once more from the top, faster this time. More of a rollicking, gospel flourish. Our moist-eyed hush turns into an giddy buzz, all foot-tapping and body-swaying. And by the end, we're all on our feet, applauding with everything we've got. 

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