Count Basie's Centennial celebration is 2004 is slipping into history, but not before the Cape May Jazz Festival got to blow out the candles.
The semiannual bash November 12-14 was nominally in honor of The Kid from Red Bank, although only the opening act of the 20-event weekend gave the great bandleader and pianist his due.
The New Life Jazz Orchestra led by Kendrick Oliver came down from Boston and got toes tappin' and fingers snappin' just as Basie used to. A whole raft of blue-tinted gems sparkled once again - the rip-roaring "Jumping at the Woodside," "Splanky," "Shiny Stockings," and "Moten Swing." "The Comeback" brought on sultry vocalist Monica Lynk.
The irresistible Marlena Shaw added star power to the set, recalling how Basie hired her in 1967 and helped her break into the big time, then singing "Until I Met You," which was originally the instrumental "Corner Pocket," composed by her friend Freddie Green.
Shaw had already won the audience over when she launched into her big saucy hit, "Go Away Little Boy." Then she brought Lynk back out for a gospel duet on the inspiring "This Little Light of Mine," with everyone on their feet, clapping and singing along.
There are nine venues in all scattered around Cape May, and it requires strategic planning and luck to pack maximum music into six hours of club-hopping per night. But on this cold, rainy, blustery Friday, the overriding principle was a quick dash to the nearest stage.
Fortunately, Winard Harper's sextet was on really on at the Savannah Key club a block away, and they kept me happily warm and dry till midnight.
Drummer Harper is a dynamo, the aural equivalent of a fireworks show, flailing sticks sending up flares and rockets, showering sparks that ignite bandmates, while his feet furnish the sonic booms. He bobs to and fro, beaming with pleasure, and listeners can't help but share that great feeling.
Senegalese conga player Alioune Faye lends authenticity to the band's emphasis on African and world-beat music, and everyone doubles on percussion, shaking and rattling a variety of devices. Harper whacks on a xylophone-like wooden balofon now and then.
A highlight was the ballad "Here's to Life," introduced with the whoosh of brushes on cymbals and a shimmering curtain of sound by pianist Jeb Patton. Trumpeter Patrick Rickman and saxophonist Brian Horton then eased into a gentle bossa-nova melody. Harper dedicated the performance to Clarence Atkins, who recently died after a long career as a jazz critic for the Amsterdam News in New York.
The Festival All-Stars isn't a working band, but a gathering of six who have been playing regularly at Cape May in their own groups for years. Pianist Brian Trainor brought them together in November 2003 and the results were special as documented on "Friends," the festival-produced CD of that live concert.
That they play classic tunes "All Blues," "Body and Soul" helps account for the polished sound they get. But there are some originals in their book too. Next time around, more of these fresh challenges for these great improvisers would be welcome.
A late dinner detained me from all but the last number by the Louis Hayes-led Cannonball Adderley Legacy Band. The other top attraction Saturday night was violinist Regina Carter, another jazz veteran immersed in world music. She plucked strings, tapped them with her bow and used her voice interestingly in searching for different sounds, but her best effort was a more straight-ahead, deeply felt Thelonious Monk blues, "Mysterioso."
Singer Rene Marie was a revelation to those who classified her as mainly a talented interpreter of the standards songbook. With the death of Nina Simone, she seems to have assumed the mantle of the socially conscious diva, reminding us through music that the world has a long road to travel to achieve equality and justice.
Marie's midnight set opened innocuously enough with "Surrey with the Fringe on Top," although she invested it with a slinky quality that made you wonder just what was going on behind that buggy's drawn curtains. Then came Abbey Lincoln's "Caged Bird," about lost freedom; an original, "The South Is Mine," based on poetry Marie discovered her father had written about his part in the desegregation upheaval; and "Oh Nina," a tribute to Simone that incorporated a few bars from some of her most outspoken pieces.
"I'm Going Home" capped the set, gospel at the dawn of a Sunday. Although it was 1:30 a.m., there were those who wished Rene Marie wouldn't go home just yet.
Others who performed at Cape May included golden-aged singers Oscar Brown Jr. and Jimmy Scott. Some unlucky listeners were turned away both nights when the Congress Hall ballroom reached capacity. Just another sign of how successful this 11-year-old festival has become.
Visit the Cape May Jazz Festival on the web at www.capemayjazz.org .