32nd Cape May Jazz Festival: Tribute to the Count

Tara Nurin By

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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 vision—all 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 comments—remarking "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.

In the most memorable example, occurring early Sunday afternoon, Walker threw a rousing party inviting the audience's full participation. Providing what might have been the most outright fun and humorous hour of the weekend, the popular, frequent festival attraction and jam-session overseer, stormed through the audience to yank benign listeners onto their feet, practically morphing them into spontaneous performers. A stranger to the proceedings (or to a healing service at a revival tent show) could not have suspected that the obese woman slouching in the corner with a cane would make for such an enjoyable singer and dancer. Yet with Walker's exuberant, contagious coaxing, there she was, loving the spotlight, unabashedly jiggling her flesh and belting out lyrics while the audience—and Walker herself—cheered and complimented the woman like a beloved sister.

These afternoon jams, which are meant in part to grant exposure to local and rising talents, acutely fulfilled their mission by showcasing two particularly notable young artists who, if the fates behave as they should, will surely make significant and exciting contributions to the jazz and blues worlds for many future decades. The New Jersey Network public TV station sent a camera crew to the "Alan Weber and Friends" Saturday jam at the dedicated blues venue of Cabanas—not to feature Alan Weber but to tape and interview 15-year-old Jay Gaunt, who sat in on harmonica. Although the New Jersey teen didn't exhibit the physical comfort level on stage as a more experienced adult, he played with the dexterity and soul of a man who's slugged from more than one dusty moonshine bottle at more than one Mississippi Delta juke joint. The authenticity was enough to make a blues lover lament the direction his manager (his mother) says he's about to take: away from blues and toward jazz. Still, if his jazz harp playing exhibits the same depth and expertise in channeling the old masters, listeners should expect to revel no less in watching him play in the festival's jazz halls in upcoming years.

But for all of Gaunt's demonstrated maturity of sound, the festival's unrivaled golden child would have to be Immanuel Wilkins, saxophonist for the Philly-based youth band Little Jazz Giants. With all of 12 years in his pocket, Wilkins could have undoubtedly convinced a blindfolded listener that he was listening to a sax icon like Charlie Parker. With utter self-assuredness, Wilkins blew his horn with perfect accuracy, then layered his output with style and flair. Soloing or playing with his bandmates on jazz standards like "Watermelon Man," "Footprints," and "Lardis," his playing went beyond the mechanics of the notes with a sound more spiritual, or even preternatural, than deliberately constructed through hours of woodshedding.

After Wilkins' Sunday afternoon jam set, lucky musicians and fans caught a pregnant moment watching lauded saxophonist Michael Pedicin share some tips with the young, prodigious protege out on the sidewalk. In his customary polite and humble fashion, the student graciously accepted the impromptu lesson, thereby assuring his admirers that he will most likely be around for a long time, making his mark not merely as a phenom but as a respectful and respected steward of the jazz tradition.

The Headliners: Count Basie Orchestra and Ravi Coltrane

But as much as the women and "youngsters" gripped the imagination of audiences, a much larger number of people came specifically to witness the headliners. Opening night showcased Count Basie, directed by Bill Hughes, who is one of four band members to remain from the Count's days. Throughout a show that ended in a standing ovation, white-haired whispers of "I used to love this song," echoed through the aisles during standards like "Sweet Georgia Brown" and "In a Mellow Tone." To the uninitiated, there was no discernible difference between the orchestras of the present and past, but some of the CBO's most dedicated adherents admitted aloud that the evening's performance lacked some of the coherence and pizazz that exhilarated listeners during the late director's tenure. For evidence, this minority view pointed to the relative youth and inexperience of a handful of the current musicians, though cameo singer Lacy Julius Brown may have disappointed them as well. He led his selected pieces in a deep voice that, although polished and rich, was no match for his over-confident showmanship. Only Jimmy Rushing and Joe Williams made powerful and lasting impressions during their respective tours of duty with the Basie band; subsequent vocalists have been done no favors by the inevitable comparisons with either of their legendary forebears.

Saturday night, John and Alice Coltrane's son Ravi made his second festival appearance. Like the CBO, he appeared at the Theatre at Lower Regional High School, which replaced the condemned Convention Hall as the venue with the highest capacity. The soft-spoken, Brooklyn-dwelling scion once again brought his distinctive sound and repertory, perhaps esoteric to an older audience unmistakably interested in hearing how son has been carrying on father's musical heritage. To their delight or, in some instances, their dismay, the saxophonist refused to be categorized, paying homage to his father by intentionally not replicating his sound but by, in his words, "acknowledg(ing) with love my influences while attempting a move forward—to be open and receptive to shifts in the musical terrain—to make music that is relevant to my present day experience." Generating monumental amounts of applause, his set included originals like "Narcine" and familiar fare like Thelonious Monk's "Epistrophy." Adding agility and zip while not sacrificing profundity was Geri Allen on piano, Massimo Biolcati on bass and Jeff "Tain" Watts on drums.

Once the headliners concluded their early sets at the theater, it was back to Beach Drive, where because of the reduced number of acts—attributed to the recession—and the concentrated geography of the venues, it was far easier to catch the majority of the artists than in many previous years. Some attendees and organizers actually found this limitation to be a relief, as it made the festival more manageable and encouraged long-time aficionados to discover unfamiliar acts. But perhaps the greatest beauty of this forced contraction was that interested newcomers and veterans could take the opportunity to sample more of the festival's wares, gaining greater exposure to the diverse possibilities that lie within the "mainstream" jazz tradition.

For the benefit of festival-goers, who paid up to $150 for a weekend pass, along Beach Drive those differences were on fire: Dapper Houston Person compelled a room full of genteel African-American seniors to smile knowingly along with his soulful jazz saxophone at Aleathea's, while Richie Cole's bopping and rocking alto sax and slouchy beat-poet attire provoked his 50-something, jeans-clad, Caucasian audience to dance madly and cackle at the moon outside the window of Carney's Other Room. Radam Schwartz, a loosened-up Baby Boomer prankster, filled tavernesque Carney's Main Room with the up-tempo yet soul-funk sound of his Hammond B3 organ 24 hours before organist Kyle Kohler backed up guitarist Teddy Royal with a jumping beat that poured New Orleans all over Cape May's basement Boiler Room. And if passersby thought they might have heard Carlos Santana jockeying with his guitar from within one of the Carney's locations, that was actually drummer-singer Edgardo Cintron invoking Santana's living spirit, paying tribute with his Inca Band to a fellow Latino jazz/rock musician.

The heterogeneous possibilities that exist within the circumscribed boundaries of the festival were further laid bare by nightly blues acts that demonstrated their own genre's range by leaping all over the time-space continuum to pick up little pieces of eclectic styles and sprinkling them into their sets. But mercifully, at least for the jazz traditionalist who needed to regroup after experimenting with such disparate musical shards within this single and singular crystal palace, additional horn-dominated acts were there to bring the schedule's ensemble theme and sound to mind.

And whenever festival-goers required some soul-soothing or inspiration not found in the headliners, they could find it in one of those ubiquitous woman artists who proved so effective at nurturing ears through sweet harmonies or in one of those youths who offered, in addition to a spark of rejuvenation, optimism for a flourishing jazz future.

Sample the sounds of the 32nd Cape May Jazz Festival.

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