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Great vibes in Cape May N.J.

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Cape May Jazz Festival
Cape May, NJ
November 12-14, 2010
Just a few bars into his first tune, "All Blues," I knew Joe Baione would make my day. Or night, as it were.

Vibraphonist Baione's quartet wasn't a headliner at the 34th semiannual Cape May Jazz Festival. Those honors belonged to Les McCann with Javon Jackson, to the Yellowjackets, to Terell Stafford and Tim Warfield, to Ralph Peterson. Their sets had been enjoyable. But this listener, at least, hadn't been transported into the rapturous state that great jazz can often induce. Now, late on a Saturday night, that was about to change.

Baione had been booked for three sets at one of the festival's more intimate venues, the subterranean Boiler Room beneath the historic Congress Inn Hotel, a grotto walled in by 200-year-old patched-up brick, where the sound is superb.

The Miles Davis classic blues had been rearranged. Gone was the nine-note bass line that served as the spine in countless versions over the past half-century. Sacrilege!. But wait, the bass set out on a new, funky course, while vibes and piano stayed true to the delicate melody line. Baione then improvised, letting loose cascades of crystalline notes, in chords and runs, as he danced to and fro, mallets flying, drawing inspiration from sidemen's solid support.

Then it was pianist Toru Dodo's turn. He, too, paid proper respect to the timeless melody with single-note runs and then increasingly thick chords, then sudden jarring notes as though some fingers had gone on detached duty (a la the late, great Don Pullen) while his left hand remained firmly in the groove. Dodo kept ratcheting up the tension with these discordant notes, finally exploding in a two-fisted frenzy that induced yelps of pleasure from the 100 or so listeners crammed into the bar.

It was a pattern the pianist followed in soloing on several subsequent numbers, and it never failed to galvanize the crowd.

I stayed for two exhilarating sets, with Baione mixing his own imaginative originals—a bossa nova here, a Caribbean-inspired romp there—in with grooving jazz classics like "Bags' Groove" and "Watermelon Man." While pianist Dodo's brilliant work stood out, bassist Marco Panascia and drummer Jerome Jennings had ample opportunity to stretch out on creative solos and contribute to the quartet's overall sound.

Can't wait to catch these guys live again.

Earlier that Saturday night, keyboard legend Les McCann was featured in a quintet led by hard bop tenor saxophonist Javon Jackson.

McCann, a popular soul jazz player and singer in the late 1960s and '70s, hasn't been heard from much since suffering a stroke in 1995, and he's using a wheelchair, but retains a loyal following. He rewarded fans with a heartfelt vocal on "With These Hands," a chance to sing along on his big hit, the antiwar protest "Compared to What," and the funky instrumental "Cold Duck Time."

The Friday night headliners were the Yellowjackets, approaching their 30th year as a primo fusion band. Saxophonist Bob Mintzer and keyboard player Russell Ferrante are the featured soloists, but the intense bassist Jimmy Haslip often stole the show with his hypnotic playing. On one original, Haslip grabbed onto a blues lick, turning it over and over like a dog with a bone extracting every juicy morsel. Later, he was featured on the funky"Jacket Time," his swift-fingered solo riding over rock-steady Will Kennedy's drums and punch accents from Ferrante.

Trumpeter Terell Stafford teamed with up with tenor player Tim Warfield for a rewarding outing, highlighted by the seductive Shirley Scott composition "Oasis," which loped along in a "Caravan"-like groove with compelling solos by all concerned, including organist Pat Bianchi and percussionist Daniel Sadownick.

Guitarist Monnette Sudler, a Philadelphian and a fixture at Cape May festivals, led an all-woman trio with Noriko Kamo on organ and Lee-sa Dawn Robinson on drums. Along with standards by Jobim and Monk and a Sudler vocal on the ballad "My Romance," the trio turned travel guide, taking us on a trip to a sunny tropical isle on a lilting Sudler original called "Going Home."

Another Philadelphian, tenorist Umar Raheem, led a band called New York Connection (N.Y. is where some of his accomplices hail from) in three hard-driving sets at Carney's, the bar that serves as an unofficial Festival Central, Sonny Rollins' "G-Man" closed out the night.

The spring festival is set for April 8-10.

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