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Exit 0 Jazz Festival: Music All Over The Map

John Ephland By

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Exit 0 International Jazz Festival
Cape May, New Jersey
November 7-9, 2014

It's a festival by the bay. Actually, it's by a cape. Or in a cape. Cape May, New Jersey, to be exact. And it has a history. A history by another name as well as its own. For those of you who are familiar with the festival by the cape, now known as the Exit 0 International Jazz Festival, this year's edition was full of the typical variances, yours truly a newbie to their style of musical diversity. Only a few of shows are mentioned and talked about here, others included headliner Monty Alexander, along with singer Rene Marie, and pianist/vocalists Johnny O'Neal and Nigel Hall (in separate shows). It was three days, Friday night through Sunday late afternoon, featuring music just this side of the Atlantic, with crisp fall weather suggesting a coat but also a welcoming afternoon stroll on the massive, visitor-friendly beach, with everything inside. The crowds this reviewer was with were... crowdy, and seemed to be having a splendid time. From the looks and sounds of it, music lovers all.

Three engaging shows emerged as particularly noteworthy: the jazz- moniker-laden Cookers, Jon Batiste and his Stay Human band, and the Aaron Parks Trio.

Opening the festival on the main stage of the Cape May Convention Hall, The Cookers were a return act; not so much an act as an actual. With strength at every position, the front line of four was (facing out from left to right) Billy Harper on tenor saxophone, group founder David Weiss and Eddie Henderson on trumpets, and Donald Harrison on alto saxophone, backed up by the intuitively powerful rhythm section of Cecil McBee on bass, pianist George Cables and drummer Billy Hart. Out of the collective sound there were may voices, but Hart in particular was a surprising, and welcomed, menace. As he would chart later to lesser degree in trio with Parks and bassist Ben Street the next day, Hart was all over his set, more flamboyant and effervescent than this reviewer has seen in many a year. There were a variety of tunes played, many of them full of ensemble in-an-out-styled voicings and, from the looks of it, some deep listening. Just watching the horns move from front stage to the wings, depending on who was soloing, was also part of the performance.

Playing a bit of music from their most recent CD Time And Time Again (Motema Music), tunes included an interesting chart that held a two-chord frame, with a dirge-like melody that slow-cooked (no pun intended) under explosive solos from Weiss, Harper and Cables. Harper's "Capra Black" it was. McBee's "Peacemaker" was, like much of the show, a studied, methodical expression of another "non-cooker," slow, meditative, with a halting arrangement, reflective, Henderson, Harrison and McBee the individual soloists, Harper playing his solos through the music. Likewise with Harper's "Croquet Ballet," another slow cooker, with driving solos from Harrison and Cables. Cables' ode to the late Mulgrew Miller, "Farewell Mulgrew," was played as a fitting remembrance to a great friend and talent. With fiery solos from Henderson and Harper, Freddie Hubbard's "The Core" finally showed the band playing up to its name, this 1960s cooker revealing once again in solo fashion the snap-to-it firepower of Hart's swinging combustion, now made manifest as he swooped across his various skins with sticks in hand, shimmering his cymbals from left to right, right to left. The personification of the Cookers, it was Hart taking the band by the hand. Or hands. And feet.

While the Cookers represented the opening to this year's Exit 0 fest (the number 0 referring to the last exit southbound out of New Jersey), brawny, post-bop entourage as they were, Aaron Parks Trio's set the following day was a touch of elegance, a sit-down lunchtime affair at the Whale's Tale Splash Stage. Tucked in the seaside corner of this standing-room only, fully seated crowd of hungry and thirsty jazz fans, pianist Parks' trio included the seamless support of bassist Ben Street and drummer Billy Hart, the band positioned from left to right as one faced them. The contrast with nighttime shows was amplified by the ubiquitous daylight that came streaming in from all sides of the restaurant windows, making it somewhat challenging to actually see especially Parks, especially, the blinds left up to reveal sunshine and a vast ocean well beyond the stage and street outside.

Parks' open playing (as opposed to a more formula-driven style) allowed for Hart to fill in and Street to punctuate seemingly at will. The pianist's chords could be dense, complex, his indeterminate lines still capable of some harmonic drive. It could be tuneful playing without an obvious tuneful phrase to hang everything on. With brief comments to the audience here and there, songs were announced and the music played, a ruminating waltz interspersed with songs befitting the room's dreamlike setting: Parks' poignant, apropos "Isle Of Everything," Les McCann's swinging modal chestnut "Kathleen's Theme," some rare up-tempo swing with Sonny Rollins' early bopper "Airegin."

And so, as with all great trios, the playing must be delivered as if from one organism, three parts melding, especially on slow tunes where the elastic nature of the interplay becomes more evident, obvious, the ebb and flow more deliberate. With the waltz "Hit And Run," it was as if Parks' seemed to be working something out in public, digesting, sorting. Then, with a sudden head drop, the music went back again from the original to the revered, the three now playing Ellington's "Sophisticated Lady" at a delicious crawl.

"I'm nervous but really happy to play with you, Billy," Parks evinced to all on hand as he opened the closer. No doubt, that happiness was a reflection of a veteran drum master whose playing here and there involved more drive, nuance and spirit just beyond the contours of this otherwise more subdued setting.

A fitting metaphor for a festival by the sea. And by the bay.

Photo Credit: Richard Conde Photography

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