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Cape May Jazz Festival: November 2005

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Part of the fun of this festival is trying to time the travel from one club to the next to catch maximum music and minimum break time.
Having heard flutist Herbie Mann perform a number of times over his long career, culminating in his final performance at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival—while he was hooked up to oxygen—I was happy to learn that the Cape May (New Jersey) Jazz Festival was dedicating its Nov. 11-13 festival to his music.

And this was no token tribute. Dave Valentin was the headliner Friday night at Convention Hall, playing with guitarist Larry Coryell and pianist Marc Soskin, two who went way back with Herbie. On the drums was Mann's son, Jeff.

Saturday night, Hubert Laws and David "Fathead" Newman took over the big stage. And another flutist, Chip Shelton, held forth all night at one of the half-dozen restaurants that serve as festival venues in this picturesque seaside town.

Mann's biggest hits—"Comin' Home Baby" and "Memphis Underground"—were faithfully rendered in each set. These are delightfully funky tunes with irresistable rhythms that were just as satisfying on fourth hearing as on first.

Valentin, a flamboyant showman, is also one serious flautist, embellishing the instrument's birdlike trills with his own voice. He opened with "Dippermouth," Mann's own bluesy tribute to Louis Armstrong, and exuded tenderness on "Passing Through," a wistful ballad Mann wrote while undergoing radiation therapy for the cancer that took his life.

Newman switched to tenor to caress this same tune the next night, after Laws had set the mood beautifully, playing J.J. Johnson's "Lament" in memory of Mann.

The set that echoes most in my memory after a weekend full of music was by Bobby Watson and Horizon, a "reassembled" band modeled on the old Jazz Messengers that pits Watson's always passionate alto sax against the equally fervent trumpeter Terell Stafford. Glorious polyphony rang out throughout up-tempo tunes like "Beatitudes" and "Roberta's Bounce." Ellington's "In a Sentimental Mood" lulled listeners back into their seats.

"Lemoncello" is a new Italian cocktail, Watson told us, and judging by his tune of that name, it must have quite a kick. A catchy tune, an infectious beat. It was indeed a happy hour.

Singer/pianist Andy Bey was another star attraction. Blessed with a distinctive husky voice that's right on pitch from the hushed sighs and whispers on a ballad to flat-out roar, and from foghorn depth to sweet, near-falsetto warble, Bey put unique spins on familiar fare—the wry "It Ain't Necessarily So," the painful "Love for Sale," and on lesser-known tunes from Sting and Dori Cayymi.

Edgardo Cintron, who burned up one stage here with his big Latin band a year ago, returned with a septet this time to the more intimate confines of Congress Hall's Boiler Room nightclub. It was a warm Saturday afternoon, made all the hotter as the three-trumpet, three-percussion ensemble ignited works by Dizzy, Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter and Eddie Palmieri, among others.

Part of the fun of this festival is trying to time the travel from one club to the next to catch maximum music and minimum break time. Among those I enjoyed for partial sets were robust blues shouter Byther Smith and the Night Riders and a Haitian drum and dance group, Bonga and Vodou Jazz Ensemble.

The aforementioned Chip Shelton's last set finished up my festival in fine fashion, Shelton and bandmates Lou Volpe on guitar and Don Carn on organ revisiting the Herbie Mann songbook one more time.

Herbie Mann wasn't the only recently deceased Cape May favorite to be saluted. Saturday morning brought multitalented Maggie Brown to the Convention Hall stage for a moving memorial service for her late father, Oscar Brown Jr., the singer, actor, poet and playwright who was a good friend of festival co-founder Woody Woodland.

Some wonderful scenes from a documentary made not long before Brown died in May were screened, including one in which he recites his poem "The Beach," about the inevitability of death, and another in which several generations of Browns join in joyous song.

The service ended with a little band striking up "The Saints" and leading the crowd down Beach Drive to the afternoon's revelry.

The next Cape May festival will be in late April, just a week before the New Orleans Jazz Fest would ordinarily take place. Whether the Big Easy will be ready to roll out the red carpet that soon isn't known yet. But wouldn't it be a treat to bring up some of that fabled city's displaced musicians to Cape May, stock up the restaurants with crawfish and oysters, and deck the town out in purple, gold and green bunting? With some proceeds going to Katrina relief?

New Orleans blessed the world with this music. Now it's the world's turn to give back all it can.

Photo Credit
Ben Johnson

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