The 31st Cape May Jazz Festival
Cape May, New Jersey
April 16-18, 2009
As it works to regroup from its own financial problems of the past several years, due in some measure to over expansion, the Cape May Jazz Festival team didn't need the impact of a full-blown recession.
L to R: Zach Graddy, Kent Miller and Michael Thomas
But that was a reality this spring. It was evident in a slimmed down festival, lower talent tiers and modest attendance at the 31st semiannual event, held April 16-18, in the charming Victorian-style resort city at the southern tip of the Jersey Shore.
This edition was trumpeted with a bizarre "Legends... and more Blues" theme. In reality, the only true headliner was blues veteran James Cotton's band. Which means for the first time in my memory, this jazz festival had no true jazz headliner.
The opening night listed "headliner" was a 13-piece B Swingers Big Band featuring singers Steve Butler and Sabrina Carten in a "Have a Song on Me" tribute to Billy Eckstine and Sarah Vaughan.
It was disappointing at best. The instrumentalists were fine, but the show was too theatrical and had no place at this festival, and it played to no more than half a house at the Lower Cape Regional High School Theater. This sounded more like an act for a mainstream supper club or off-Broadway musical.
I would have much preferred just the big band rather than Butler's campy kitschor a chance to hear Butler singing Butler. Instead, we got a blend of Eckstine/Cab Calloway-style fashions, mugging and rubber-faced mannerisms and a less-than-impressive voice. As one of my traveling partner's nicest comments put it: "He had nice shoes." Carten fared better in her reprise of several Vaughan hits, but she wasn't being her talented self either.
On Saturday evening in the same venue, Cotton's blues quintet drew a slightly larger crowd, and had the audience in its grip all night. The classic blues harmonica master knows how to make his collection of harps sing. The music got progressively hotter, climaxing with an extended version of "Got My Mojo Workin.'"
Carrying on the grand jazz tradition fell to musicians who played the smaller beachfront clubs and hotel dining rooms - saxophonist Odean Pope, drummer Sylvia Cuenca, Cuban percussionist Mayra Casales and guitarist Roni Ben-Hur among them. Their playing was strong and together they provided a lot of quality musical diversity. More than a few included songs associated with Mr. B or Sassy and that was a better tribute than the repertory schtick.
They were central to one of the great aspects of the Cape May Jazz Festival: the exposure it provides for a diverse range of emerging or regional talent. That was in evidence at virtually all of the smaller venues and the traditional Saturday afternoon jazz and blues jamsdespite the festival's size reduction from a high of 11 or 12 different acts per night at its peak to five or six per night this year.
The slimmed-down nature of the festival actually makes it easier to enjoy full sets by more musicians rather than listening smorgasbord-style.
The strongest festival newcomers were Brooklyn-based singer Barbara King and Washington, D.C.-based trumpeter Michael Thomas.
King (shown at right) brought her Sarah Vaughan-like approach to a number of originals and creative reworkings of "Let It Be," "One Note Samba" and "I Had a Ball," a tune associated with Vaughan and Nancy Wilson. Her own "Miracles" was a poignant stunner by this singer, whose musical roots were developed in church choirs.
Thomas's hard-bop quintet brought a blazing Jazz Messengers-style energy to Congress Hall's Boiler Room in an opening set that stretched about 90 minutes - well above the festival's customary 45-to-60 minutes. The band was tops on "Candy," reminiscent of Lee Morgan's recording of the standard, and Thomas's own "Blues Number 9."
The November 6-8 edition of the festival will include the latest edition of the Count Basie and other acts yet to be announced.