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Exit Zero International Jazz Festival: Cape May, NJ, November 9-11, 2012

Exit Zero International Jazz Festival: Cape May, NJ, November 9-11, 2012
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Exit Zero International Jazz Festival
Cape May, NJ
November 9-11, 2012
After the beating the Northeast took from Hurricane Sandy and a snowy nor'easter, people were ready for something positive, and for some it came in the form of the first Exit Zero International Jazz Festival in Cape May, New Jersey.

Pianist Ramsey Lewis, bassist Christian McBride, singer Mark Murphy, trumpeter Nicholas Payton and dozens of other musicians were ready to party, and so were the nearly 1,000 people able to make it to the picturesque Victorian town at the state's southern tip. Cape May had received some flooding from Sandy, but little wind damage, and Mother Nature provided sunshine and mild breezes for the weekend of November 9-11, 2012.

The earlier incarnation of the Cape May Jazz Festival had prospered for 15-plus years until it foundered after the condemnation of the town's old wooden Convention Hall a few years ago. Now, a spectacular new convention center overlooks the ocean, and it was ground zero for Exit Zero, with music also presented in a half-dozen bars and restaurants along Beach Avenue.

Ramsey Lewis's two Saturday night sets filled the big hall and were festival highlights. The 78 year-old pianist has been playing professionally for nearly six decades and reached his popularity peak in the 1960s with crossover hits like "Hang On, Sloopy" and "The In Crowd." He remains an enthusiastic and engaging performer.

Lewis's sets were steeped in the gospel-inspired music that reflected his Chicago upbringing. His medleys, and there were several, included an amalgam of gospel's greatest hits. Call it "Come Sunday, This Little Light takes A Closer Walk to Glory, Hallelujah." His Electric Band, a sextet featuring guitarist Henry Johnson and keyboardist Tim Gant, was in perfect sync with Lewis, harmonically enriching his solos and delivering blues-drenched solos of their own.

"Wade in the Water," another Lewis hit, was an apt choice and he played it in both sets, but differently. His first solo began as a subtle, one-finger exercise and built gradually to a grand climax; the second time, he plunged ahead full bore from start to finish.

The blend of saxophonist John Coltrane's "Dear Lord" and Lewis' original "Blessings" constituted chamber jazz of the highest order, music of exquisite beauty that would have sounded at home in any concert hall in the world.

Christian McBride's quintet, Inside Straight, played Convention Hall Friday night and delighted post-bop fans with imaginative originals from Kind of Brown (Mack Avenue, 2009) and an upcoming disc. The bassist's star turn came on his solo version of Billy Strayhorn's "Sophisticated Lady," where he plucked runs at dazzling speed.

"Starbeam" was a shimmering ballad that featured soprano saxophonist Steve Wilson's darting solo and Peter Martin Weiss twinkling piano. And "Used Ta Could" was a ¾-time hip-shaker where all concerned confirmed their blues cred.

McBride finished with a selection from a yet-to-be-released film, Fair Hope, for which he composed the score.

The bassist wore a sweatshirt emblazoned with a glittering image of the newly reelected President Obama. He said he'd been searching for one portraying the Obama-Gov. Chris Christie embrace, and McBride promised to wear it if he's invited back.



Mark Murphy's adventurous explorations of the Great American Songbook were fascinating, as he toyed with melody and rhythm. Now 80, Murphy's voice is more gritty than velvety, but he still roamed easily over two octaves and leapt nimbly into falsetto range. His frequent scatting was punctuated with high-pitched yips and yelps.

In his hour-long set, Murphy saluted composer Cole Porter, pianist Bill Evans, and the Gershwins—a full-throated, vigorously arranged "Stairway to Paradise," featured pianist Alex Minasian and bassist Curtis Lundy. Murphy concluded with "Stolen Moments," for which he wrote the lyrics, tapping the mike against his chest to simulate the sound of his heart beat as he thanked the capacity audience for sharing his love of song.

Claudia Acuna has a voice that flows like sun-warmed honey and a repertoire of compelling originals that struck a chord, even with non-Spanish-speaking listeners. "The Chariot" (sung mainly in English) was the farewell of a dying woman to her love. "Come Closer My Love" captured the soaring passion of a young woman's first love.

The Captain Black Big Band, led by pianist Orrin Evans, had a topnotch cast of New York and New Jersey musicians and some first-rate charts of originals and standards. On this occasion the band was joined by Nicholas Payton; "Stardust" was the trumpeter's feature, and he and Evans also traded fireworks on saxophonist Wayne Shorter's barn-burner, "Water Babies."

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