Cape May Jazz Festival: Tribute to the Legendary Count Basie
Cape May, New Jersey
November 6-9, 2009
There may have been two male performers headlining the 32nd Cape May Jazz Festival, but in truth it was the women and children who stole the show.
The big draw, as advertised in the festival's subtitle, was anticipated to be the tribute to Count Basie by the present-day Count Basie Band, the nearly sold-out opener Friday night at the 1150-seat Theatre at Lower Regional High School, where the following night Ravi Coltrane led off the slate of evening performances. Though these two attactions were christened the big-ticket acts of the three-day event, subsequent shows and jam-session appearances by ladies and youths provided a freshness, finesse and, in some cases, prodigy-like brilliance that, no doubt in the minds of many attendees, "smoothed out" the testosterone-charged edge of the male-dominated event.
Show-Stealers: Women and Youth
The stand-out among the females was Barbara King, who received a rare return invitation this November thanks to the feverish reception she received during the 31st bi-annual festival in April. Filling her three sets past capacity at the cordial Victorian Gardens restaurant on Friday night, the 20-something singer ably delivered tried and true standard tunes that in an earlier era got her female jazz vocalist predecessors noticed and respected as accomplished exponents of the idiom.
King, whose look and sound might remind fans of the aura of film noir chanteuse in a once-smoky piano lounge, followed the example set by those savvy musical predecessors by arranging herself as an intoxicating visionall the better to ensure that the change of setting represented by her repertory and approach would have her audience mesmerized before she even opened her mouth. Wrapped in a snug and shiny turquoise gown, the long-legged, long-haired, chocolate-skinned King allowed nothing to separate her from her unapologetic, seductive femininity when she flashed her manicured smile or shimmied sexily to the sounds of her own infectious beat.
But no untouchable, prima donna-ish diva was King. She extended a gracious hand to her audience with her frequently comical, even jocular, repartee, bringing her selections down from the stage and into the audience's space by following a song lyric up with editorial commentsremarking "Busted!," for instance, at the conclusion of Nancy Wilson's "Guess Who I Saw Today," which chronicles the accusation and revenge that ensue after one lover catches the other in an extra-curricular tete a tete. Compared most often to Sarah Vaughan, King glossed smooth melodies over solid instrumentation provided by Kenny Wessel on guitar, Joe Tranchina on keys, Jim Cammack on bass and Dwayne "Cook" Broadnax, who handled the drums.
Following up at Victorian Gardens the following evening was Denise Thimes, a bustier presence than King but no less sultry, soulful or seductive. On readings of familiar classics like Peggy Lee's "Fever" and Duke Ellington's "In a Sentimental Mood," Thimes coaxed her melodies to linger long and soft around the edges in order to draw out the full flavor of their dulcet tones and emotive undercurrents. For other tunes, including some that highlighted her "St. Louis Blues" roots, she presented the audience with a more public, interactive persona, commanding them to snap along and to do so without "worrying 'bout no rhythm." Backed up by a band that perfectly accented her alternating booming and moody delivery, Thimes cast an aura over the crowd that made them fall into line, swaying, head bopping or, of course, snapping, as the tone of her Ella Fitzgerald-like voice insisted.
Although Thimes couldn't attend the Saturday and Sunday afternoon jazz jam sessions, they provided one more setting where women could continue to shine if not dominate. At two conjoining bars, Barbara King, Cape May jazz stalwart Lois Smith and Philadelphia-based singer Barbara Walker unfurled their estrogen-infused harmonies over a walk-on rotation of male musicians and vocalists. At times during the jam sessions, these ladies contributed to an auditory backdrop that mimicked the murmuring "jazz brunch" venue where sleepy diners talk quietly and spike their coffees and their brains with Irish whiskey and live music; at other moments, they hurled bursting electrical jolts at listeners who, it could be speculated, needed no further stimulant to focus alertly and completely on the entertainment at hand.