It was fitting, if probably unintentional, that the 21st edition of the Cape May Jazz Festival April 16-18 was billed "Exceptional Pianists." 2004 is, after all, the 100th anniversary of the birth of Count Basie, the Kid from Red Bank, N.J., whose considerable talents as a pianist were overshadowed by his role as leader of one of the greatest and longest-lasting of big bands.
Basie's legacy was honored, ironically, at this festival by the Harlem Renaissance Orchestra, a pianoless 16-piece band that played "Jumpin' at the Woodside" and "Splanky" to kick off an hour of swing-era classics. A quartet of limber-limbed lindy hoppers inspired many in the Convention Hall crowd to get up and dance.
None of the half-dozen pianists I heard over the weekend mentioned the Basie centennial or played any of his many blues-based originals. Perhaps in November, when Cape May's fall extravaganza unfolds, this oversight can be rectified.
"Exceptional" was not hyperbole at three of the performances I took in. Benny Green
joined guitarist Russell Malone
for some spectacular duets. Both onetime jazz prodigies, they're now 41 and 40, respectively, but not beyond showing off their chops, as on "East of the Sun." They chased one another across the octaves, reminiscent of the legendary exchanges between Les Paul and Nat Cole on the very first JATP record. Then they raced to a draw in the battle for fleetest fingers of all on "It's All Right With Me," ideas springing from their fertile minds to their instruments at a blinding pace.
Then they reined in. On a ballad solo, Green was enchanting, playing harplike chords, his fingers caressing each note for a fraction of a second before the next was struck. After Malone's ballad turn, he struck up a vamp, pushing and prodding it along, digging ever deeper into his bag of blues tricks, returning on occasion to a slow shuffle phrase that signaled Jimmy Reed was in the house. Listeners couldn't restrain themselves: whistles and whoops of joy served as accompaniment.
Then came Green, continuing the groove, drawing upon all his Oscar Peterson-inspired majesty, playing the blues with a jazz master's creativity. Malone joined in and together they wrapped up the 20-minute selection, the crowd leaping to its feet, roaring.
Nearly as compelling was the next night's set by Omar Sosa
, a Cuban pianist now living in Barcelona, who incorporated music from around the world, transforming it into jazz. Pieces redolent with Cuban spice, Middle Eastern mystery and sunny African lilt, were all fodder for Sosa's quartet. Percussionist Mino Cinelu, saxophonist Eric Crystal and bassist Geoff Brennan and an assortment of sound-effect devices all contributed.
Sosa, a tall, lanky figure swathed in flowing white robe and turban, folded himself over the keyboard, often twisting around to face the audience, as if to draw on their enthusiasm to help propel his unique playing. Brian Trainor
, a former New Jerseyan now based on the West Coast, was the leader of the Festival All-Stars, a sextet that played two afternoon sets at the Pelican Club, an attractive, comfortable penthouse restaurant that one hopes will become a regular venue. Trainor is a dynamo at the piano whose intensity seems to rub off on his bandmates, all of them veterans of many a Cape May festival.
The all-stars' debut last November resulted in a brilliant live recording, Friends of Cape May Jazz,
available at the festival Web site. It's a CD that has already earned a spot on my own list of top 10 disks of 2004. Ahmad Jamal
, Norman Simmons, Freddy Cole and Patti Wicks were among the other pianists brought in for the weekend. There was no way to catch them all.
One show I did enjoy was the Marcus Belgrave
band's tribute to Louis Armstrong. Belgrave took ill at the last minute, and happily, New Yorker Randy Sandke was able to fill in. He's a longtime scholar of the music's history and didn't miss a beat on "Basin Street Blues," "Tin Roof Blues" and more. Charlie Gabriel's Satch-like vocal growls whetted my appetite for the following weekend's New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival (April 23-May 2).
Visit the Cape May Jazz Fest on the web at www.capemayjazz.com .