04/18/08

Cape May Jazz Festival

The 29th semi-annual Cape May Jazz Festival was billed as “The Next Wave,” but “next” can be a relative thing when applied to a lineup that included the Rippingtons and Winard Harper, Ray Vega and Christian Scott, Rachel Z and, in a sideman role, Houston Person. What unified this festival, if anything did, was the setting. Cape May is a peninsula, but it’s almost as remote as an island, perched on the southern tip of New Jersey between the Atlantic Ocean and Delaware Bay. That remoteness, and the informal homey quality of the venues (mostly resort dining rooms and bars/nightclubs) leads to a sense of camaraderie among the participants, both musicians and fans.

You don’t usually encounter un-encouraged sing-alongs at jazz festivals, but when pianist Chuchito Valdes launched into “Bye Bye Blackbird” after a long, Erroll Garner-like prelude, the audience at the parochial school gym where he was playing became a sing-along choir as an enthusiastic fan in the front row stood up, turned around and led them through the words. A force of nature, Valdes pounded and pummeled the poor Yamaha grand piano to within an inch of its life during his thunderous set, which carried the audience along as if it was part of the roiling Atlantic a couple blocks away.

Enthusiasm and raucous crowds are part of Cape May, especially at the semi-organized (musicians are booked in advance, but walk-ons are not unknown) jam sessions that take place simultaneously in multiple venues on Saturday and Sunday afternoons. Talent and age can vary widely at these jams, but they are a welcome reminder of where jazz came from, and a chance to hear musicians interact and compete. Among the new to Cape May or up-and-coming musicians who impressed at the jams were the saxophone-playing Stein brothers (Asher and Alex), guitarist Mark Guest, alto saxophonist Julian Presley, trumpeters James Gibbs and Eleazer Shafer, and drummer Brandon Blackburn.

As an added treat, Sunday’s jam at Carney’s Other Room was hosted and kicked off by pianist Rachel Z’s trio, with saxophonist Tim Price, who had held down the stage at the Victorian Gardens café/bar the night before. It was gratifying to hear Rachel Z playing acoustic piano and hard-charging postbop jazz instead of fusion. She dug in and played with passion and authority, showing why Wayne Shorter has likened her to Herbie Hancock. The Victorian Gardens was a good place for pianists, as Robert Glasper led a trio there Friday night, making some of the most original music at the festival. Glasper’s vaunted “hip-hop” approach seemed more a mix of Philip Glass/Steve Reich serialism and Thelonious Monk whimsy and rhythmic warp. His “Monk’s Dream” evoked Monk with invention rather than imitation, while his own “Silly Rabbit” was a wondrous kaleidoscope of shifting times and juxtaposed sensibilities, full of pregnant pauses and wry surprises.

Aleathea’s, the dining room at the stately old Inn at Cape May, was the singers' venue, with a different one each day. Sue Giles, on Friday night, was slightly discombobulated, never finding a groove in her first set but displaying sparks of brilliance with a voice well accustomed to jazz traditions. On Sunday, Kim Nalley recalled the long collaboration of Etta Jones and tenor saxophonist Houston Person, her vocals meshing perfectly with his obligatos. She had the same hip rhythmic phrasing as Jones on “Exactly Like You” and “Fine Brown Frame,” but her voice is more supple in a wider range, and she showed her versatility with an old English ballad and an Eddie Harris jazz-rocker.

But the singer who really impressed and triumphed was Somi on Saturday night. Not only that, but it was an object example of how you can’t trust a recording. Somi’s Red Soil in My Eyes (World Village) envelops the singer in a smooth production striving for a Sade effect. The voice is pure and purring, the range exemplary but there’s little or no fireworks. Much of it could easily end up on smooth-jazz radio, for which it seems to be purposed. However, at Victorian Gardens that night, Somi delivered a performance as passionate, searing and musically accomplished as any vocalist in jazz today. The singer, who comes from East-Central Africa (Uganda/Rwanda), incorporates the unique inflections and tones (including guttural growls and high, keening yelps) of her African language with a thorough knowledge of classic (Ella, Sarah, Carmen) jazz technique. She’s also a consummate dramatic performer who knows and values dynamics (great microphone technique) and has a voice that can move fluidly through multiple registers at any volume. Her unique take on Bob Marley’s “I Don’t Want to Wait In Vain,” with just Liberty Ellman’s guitar, and an Africanized “Summertime” were arresting in their originality.

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