Cape May Jazz Festival's 30th Edition


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Cape May Jazz Festival
Cape May, NJ
November 6-8, 2008

Fifteen years and thirty festivals since its inception, the Cape May Jazz Festival continues to present a diverse lineup of music over two weekends—in mid-April and early November—each year in this picturesque resort town at New Jersey's southern tip.

Fresh faces joined familiar favorites November 7-9 as the festival overcame some major hurdles—including the collapse of the economy, which cut attendance sharply, and the condemnation of the city's Convention Hall, which had always been home to the headline bands.

Despite these downers, enthusiastic audiences filled bars, ballrooms and a nearby high school auditorium for two nights and two afternoons chock full of music.

San Francisco-based singer Jackie Ryan was the happiest surprise. Blessed with a marvelously appealing voice, a 3 ½-octave range, a magnetic personality and an ear for material that shows off all these qualities, she wowed crowds at both her sets at the Grand Hotel ballroom.

Did she sound a bit like Diana Krall. Yes, but whereas Krall is the epitome of cool, Ryan exuded warmth, sharing with listeners her joy in uninhibited music making. Her repertoire ranged from the wide-eyed wonder of the Shirley Horn-inspired "I Just Found Out About Love" to the unbridled passion of "Besame Mucho" and the ethereal Italian ballad "Estate." She's fluent in five languages.

Ryan knew the stories behind many of her songs, and shared them so audiences could better appreciate the lyrics. Example: How Oscar Brown Jr.'s run-in with a South Side Chicago gang led to a collaboration on a rock musical that included the clever "Opportunity, Please Knock."

Ryan can belt the blues, too, as evidenced on her swinging closer, Lionel Hampton's "Red Top."

Kudos to the trio of Philadelphia-area music professors—Tom Lawton on piano, Madison Rast on bass and Dan Monahan—backing her flawlessly on their first gig together.

Friday night's other main attraction was Jon Faddis in a salute to the late Maynard Ferguson. The trumpeter sat in—literally sat, owing to a bad back—with a crackling good big band led by saxophonist Ed Vezinho and trumpeter Jim Ward.

Faddis hit the requisite high notes on flag wavers like "Where's Teddy?" but was at his most moving on timeless ballads—"Danny Boy" and "Smile" for two—and on a soul-satisfying take on Slide Hampton's classic "Frame for the Blues."

Poor timing on my part limited my enjoyment of the offerings at Saturday night's six venues - down from the nine or so locations in past years. I caught the tail-ends of sets by veteran post-boppers Bob Ferguson and Michael Pedicin, on trumpet and sax, respectively, at Congress Hall's Boiler Room, and by Denis DiBlasio at Carney's. I'd have loved hearing more from them, but both bars had shortages of seats and excesses of conviviality, not conducive to serious listening.

Instead, I headed back to the spacious Grand for a late set by Pamela Williams, a smooth jazz saxophonist, and her quintet, with bassist Doug Grisby layering on the funk. Williams has mastered all the predictable cliches of the genre, but she's so bubbly upbeat it's hard not to like her, even if the music is all style and little substance.

Earlier Saturday, I opted for a non-festival event, the Cape May Stage's production of "Lady's Day at Emerson's Bar & Grill." It's basically a one-woman show (with a pianist accompanying) dramatizing one of Billie Holiday's final performances in 1959. In 20 or so familiar tunes and between-number reminiscing, the Holiday character acquaints us with the many tragedies and less-frequent joys that marked her life.

Miche Braden, a church music director in New Brunswick, was admirable in capturing the quality and inflections of Holiday's voice and made us care.

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