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Cape May Jazz Festival, April 8-10, 2011

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Cape May Jazz Festival
Cape May, NJ
April 8-10, 2011
Poncho Sanchez never fails to ignite his audience, and his Latin jazz band came out blazing as the Saturday night opening act/headliner at the semiannual Cape May (N.J.) Jazz Festival, April 8-10.
Sanchez, the hammer-handed conga player and leather-lunged lead singer for the eight-piece band, had a crackerjack three-horn front line as always, a pianist who doubled on electrifying organ, and a couple fellow percussionists blending on hard-driving arrangements and contributing creative solos. All of which compelled some in the crowd to heed his command to get up and dance.
Sanchez saluted a half-dozen of his musical heroes over the course of two sets, including conguero pioneers Willie Bobo and Chano Pozo—the latter in a medley of three Dizzy Gillespie classics, "Con Alma," "Tin Tin Deo" and "Manteca." Early mentor Cal Tjader ("Guachi Guara") was remembered, and so were rhythm and blues legend Ray Charles ("One Mint Julep") and soul star James Brown ("Out of Sight").

Excitement reached a peak on one long, unnamed salsa tune as the ensemble riffed feverishly behind tenor saxophonist Robert Hardt's marathon solo. For a needed change of pace, trombonist Francisco Torres and pianist David Torres teamed on a luminous version of the ballad "Nearness of You," while Sanchez tapped gently behind them.

The leader paid deserved homage to his sound man, Larry Sanchez, who's worked with Poncho for 24 years. Indeed, the sound in the school gym that serves as Cape May's concert hall, while a new Convention Hall awaits construction, was superb. Even in the controlled chaos of the busiest ensemble passages, every note came across crystal clear.

Friday night's headliner, ex-Tonight Show guitarist Kevin Eubanks, didn't fare as well. Now touring with a quartet, Eubanks leans toward funk, and his often-splendid guitar work got swallowed up in the energetic drumming of Marvin "Smitty" Smith and booming bass of Alfred Rene Camacho.

Eubanks sounded great on his one feature, the hymn-like "Adoration," as drums and sax sat out. And he charmed with his genial personality, relating anecdotes about his TV years and current life as a touring jazzman.

Vibraphonist Warren Wolf brought mellower-sounding marimbas for his three sets leading the Wolfpac. In one set, he introduced an exotic original, "Natural Beauties," then raced down "Green Dolphin Street," with drummer John Lamkin applying the whip, as Wolf was a blur on lightning-fast runs. A luxuriant "Lush Life" let everyone catch their breath; then it was back to the fast track on "Cherokee."

Lauren Hooker sang with infectious gusto on several jazz standards, and collaborated with longtime friend, poet Jeannette Curtis-Rideau, who recited some of her works while the quartet grooved behind her. A highlight was her "They Can Scat, Man," a clever homage to singers from Louis Armstrong to James Moody that incorporated some of their linguistic innovations.

Leon Jordan Jr. is a quintet-leading trumpeter with a great sound and a flair for original bop-based compositions. His last set finale, "Can't Get It Right," was a dance-inducing boogaloo à la "Sidewinder."

After the first hour of Poncho Sanchez, savvy listeners relaxed at Kim Clarke's Inner Circle performance, with delicate interplay between the bassist leader, guitarist Sheryl Bailey, and drummer Sylvia Cuenca, on several classic tunes.

Pianist John Beasley's sensitive playing with a trio suffered from a talkative late-night crowd; not even drummer Jeff "Tain" Watts' bombast could shut them up. Perhaps when emcees remind people to shut off their mobile devices, they could ask compulsive yakkers to go sit far to the rear.

Winston Byrd used to be a regular at early Cape May festivals, until he packed up his trumpet and magnetic personality in the early 2000s and headed to Hollywood-land. The erstwhile high-note bopster was back this year, leading a soul-jazz sextet that showcased the remarkable voice of Daniel Walsh, with Byrd inserting Miles Davis-like obbligatos.

Several blues bands, afternoon jazz jams and three sets by the Afrophonik Rhythm Crew helped fulfill the festival's goal of music for every taste. Fall festival dates are Nov. 11-13.

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