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Dave Brubeck Quartet and Bill Smith at the Earshot Jazz Festival

The Cape May Jazz Festival is a lovely little clambake held in a quaint, historic landmark community on the Jersey shore where gingerbread-style Victorian architecture and afternoon teas are the norm. The festival has grown significantly from its earliest years when festival founder Carol Stone booked a mere three bands in a single venue, and at the 17th edition of the Cape May Jazz Festival, 20 bands came together at nine separate venues along Beach Avenue near the boardwalk and within earshot of the sound of surf, many to pay tribute to the music of Miles Davis.

Featured on the bill of this festival-wide retrospective were 10 musicians who played with Miles during different periods in his ever-evolving career. Together they offered up a heartfelt salute to Davis in representing the music of their respective decades: bassist Percy Heath from the ’40s; saxophonists Jimmy Heath and Jackie McLean along with drummer Jimmy Cobb from the ’50s; drummer Joe Chambers and bassist Buster Williams from the late ’60s; saxophonists Dave Liebman and Gary Bartz from the early ’70s; saxophonist Bill Evans from the early ’80s; and trumpeter Wallace Roney from the early ’90s.

Jackie McLean, in his first-ever appearance with all three Heath brothers-bassist Percy, tenor saxophonist Jimmy (“Little Bird”) and drummer Albert (“Tootie”) -scorched the bandstand with his tart alto sax tone, burning hard bop facility and indelible soulfulness on his own “Dig” (originally written in 1951 for a Miles sextet session) and on Davis’ “Walkin’.” Jimmy Heath, who at 75, still blows with youthful enthusiasm and boundless creativity, switched to soprano and delivered an emotionally charged reading of “‘Round Midnight” using Miles’ stark arrangement of that Thelonious Monk composition as a roadmap. His big brother Percy, at 78, still flaunts impeccable time, an infinity capacity to swing and a deep-seated feeling for the blues, as he so capably demonstrated on his one cello showcase, “Dave’s Haze.”

One of the added treats in hearing these jazz elders perform the music of Miles is the insight they offer about the tunes. “Dave’s Haze,” we found out from Percy, was originally named for Miles: “We never called him Miles,” he explained, “we called him Dave because we wanted to be different.” And “Half Nelson,” we found out from Jimmy, was originally named for a diminutive trumpeter from Camden, N.J., named Nelson Boyd. “He was a little guy like me,” explained Jimmy, “so Miles called him Half Nelson.” Up and coming pianist Jeb Patton, a Heath Brothers sideman for the past four and a half years, was an assured accompanist who also flashed an inventive streak as a soloist on a rousing version of Jimmy Heath’s “Gingerbread Boy,” originally written for the 1966 Miles Smiles session.

In one insightful afternoon panel discussion, Miles’ musical and personal legacy was discussed at length by Jimmy Heath, Jackie McLean, Dave Liebman, Bill Evans and Wallace Roney. Heath described him as “a person with exquisite taste in his music, clothes, women and cars. He knew what to do and was one of the greatest love-song players of all time.” McLean reminisced about being Miles’ running buddy in the ’40s as they checked out the latest Three Stooges flicks at the movie houses on 42nd Street and hung out afternoons at Stillman’s Boxing Gym. Liebman reflected on Miles’ personal life in the early ’70s when he was in the band: “It was a rough period for Miles physically and on top of that things were not all copasetic in that day and age, politically and racially. And I think the music of that period reflects all the turbulence, chaos and pain that existed for him then.” Evans described his own nervous audition before the Dark Prince of Jazz and offered his impression that, “Miles was someone greater than life, not someone I ever expected to get a phone call from.” And Roney addressed Miles’ legacy of always pushing forward, a quality which he has taken to heart in his own music.

Other Milesian highlights during the three-day festival: heated renditions of “Tutu,” “Water Babies” and “Directions” by the Early Fusion Band with a frontline of Roney and Evans and featuring Joe Chambers on drums, Gerald Cannon on bass, Emanuel Ruffler on synthesizer and Mulgrew Miller on piano; a surging version of “Four” by Cobb’s Mobb featuring Peter Bernstein on guitar, John Webber on bass Richard Wyands on piano and Jimmy Cobb on drums; freewheeling interpretations of 1954’s “Solar,” 1958’s “Milestones” and 1974’s Indian-flavored “Wili” (from Dark Magus) by the Liebman band featuring Vic Juris on guitar, Tony Marino on bass and Marko Marcinko on drums; a blistering rendition of “So What/Impressions” by a quintet fronted by alto saxophonist Gary Bartz and tenor saxophonist Steve Marcus and featuring bassist Vince Faye, drummer Billy Jones and superb pianist Brian Trainor.

Elsewhere at the Cape May Festival guitarist Russell Malone showcased his remarkably fluid chops with an assured swinging sense and a nonchalant style at Congress Hall; blues guitar killer Carl Weathersby rocked the rowdy patrons at Cabanas nightclub; singer-songwriter-pianist Mose Allison charmed listeners at the Corinthian Yacht Club in a trio setting with Steve Gilmore on bass and Tom Whaley on drums; guitarist Monnette Sudler unveiled her smooth-jazz sextet at Carney’s nightclub; and an all-star group of jazz veterans dubbed Legends of the Bandstand -Cedar Walton on piano, David “Fathead” Newman on tenor sax, Curtis Fuller on trombone, Buster Williams on bass and Louis Hayes on drums-gave a virtual clinic in the art of swinging with sophistication and verve in their set at the Star of the Sea Auditorium.

Originally Published