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Cape May Jazz Festival's 33rd Edition

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Cape May Jazz Festival
Cape May, NJ
April 16-18, 2010
If there's a formula for putting on a successful jazz festival, both artistically and box- office-wise, Cape May's got it.

Need some straight-ahead hard bop: Check: How about Tim Warfield and his quintet's tribute to organist Shirley Scott? Some fusion-ey jazz/pop for those less drawn to more challenging stuff? Check: Spyro Gyra.

Gotta have some blues: Shemekia Copeland will do just fine. And a dose of Latin. Chuchito Valdes. Check and double check!

They were the headliners for the 33rd semiannual Cape May Jazz Festival April 16-18 in the picture-postcard Victorian-era resort town. And they all put on great shows for the several thousand fans, many of them regulars for many years, who keep this fest going strong while some others falter.

For me, Chuchito Valdes' two fiery sets were the most memorable moments.

Valdes is a force of nature, the Niagara Falls of jazz piano, pouring it on and on and in crashing cascades of chords; he takes your breath away. The Cuban-born master draws on both the Caribbean and American songbook for material for his super-intense improvisations.

When all ten fingers aren't enough to release the sounds boiling up inside of him, Valdes employs flatted palms, fists, forearm bashes, standing-up full-body sweeps of the keyboard from top to bottom and back, bringing the audience to its feet cheering.

"Billie's Bounce" best illustrated his versatility, evolving from straight-ahead swing into a Latin phase, some boogie-woogie passages and finally into some Ray Charles-like gospel choruses.

"Bye Bye Blackbird" began deceptively as a ballad before Valdes turned up the heat, while "Besame Mucho" began and ended with a quote from classical music, smoldering for ten minutes in between.

Valdes does have a tender side, as on "Over the Rainbow," delicate throughout with upper-register tinkling representing the birds on the wing in this wistful standard.

Tim Warfield's latest CD, One for Shirley, is a tribute to Scott, who eased the Pennsylvania saxophonist's path into Philadelphia jazz circles years ago. He had organist Pat Bianchi with him in Cape May, laying down grooves for Warfield's tough but never harsh tenor.

Scott's tune "Oasis" conjured up a cool breeze relieving the heat of an Arabian desert, and Warfield's own "Sometimes You Got to Let the People Know"—a title embodying advice on being assertive he got from Scott—was a racehorse-paced affirmation that the lesson stuck.

"Lullaby for Nijee" wasn't nap time either, not with Bianchi's finger-busting runs and Warfield's barn-burner of a solo.

Things settled down some on imaginative reworkings of old warhorses "Crazy Rhythm" and "Stompin' at the Savoy. Then percussionist Daniel Sadownick took over for a master class in sound, employing all four limbs to keep a variety of rhythms perking along.

The grand finale was the Sonny Bono tune "The Beat Goes On," but it was superimposed on the two-note backbone of the Lee Morgan hit, "Sidewinder," the two tunes snaked together propelled by drummer Byron Landham's second-line beat that came straight out of the Treme.

I've seen Shemekia Copeland several times since her teen phenom debut, and she's matured into the heir-apparent to the late Koko Taylor's mantle as queen of the blues.

Copeland drew on older and newer material, most of it original, for her first Cape May set, shouting well-crafted blues like "Wild Woman" and "Salt in My Wounds" without ever slipping off-track or off-key. Her cover of Joni Mitchell's "Black Crow" demonstrated her versatility, and she finished with a well-honed take on her father Johnny Copeland's "Ghetto Child," a chilling indictment of pre-Civil Rights Era America.

I've had reservations about Spyro Gyra's legitimacy as a jazz band over the years—35 of them now—having witnessed smooth-jazz tendencies and formulaic "jamming." But the quintet's first set at Cape May was a winner. The music had more heft than in the past, more reliance on the blues and Latin sources.

A highlight was leader Jay Beckenstein's alto sax nod to the great Lester Young, a masterful take on the melancholy "Goodbye Pork Pie Hat."

In addition to the night-time concerts in big halls, the festival has local and regional talent playing day and night in three downtown bars. Guitarist Monnette Sudler led a Philly-based band featuring tenor giant Bootsie Barnes one afternoon, and singer Jeannie Brooks brought down the house on her dynamic rendition of "My Funny Valentine," egged on by trumpeter Wendell Shepherd.


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