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Cape May Jazz Festival: Still in the Groove

Performances by Yellowjackets, Les McCann with Javon Jackson, Terell Stafford and Ralph Peterson among highlights of festival in scenic Jersey Shore town

Tim Warfield and Pat Bianchi at Cape May Jazz Festival
Ralph Peterson at 2010 Cape May Jazz Festival
The Yellowjackets at 2010 Cape May Jazz Festival
Javon Jackson and David Gilmore at 2010 Cape May Jazz Festival
Les McCann at 2010 Cape May Jazz Festival
Les McCann at 2010 Cape May Jazz Festival
Monnette Sudler at 2010 Cape May Jazz Festival

The Cape May Jazz Festival is truly a gem of an event. Though the festival has had to deal with a certain amount of downsizing and a shift in leadership, it remains a well-organized and enjoyable affair. Although it’s fairly small in scope, the price is reasonable and the talent worthwhile. And the quaint setting of the bucolic Jersey shore town with its old world charm (Victorian architecture, bed & breakfast lodgings, oceanside promenade) in a decidedly offseason mode gives the event the air of a retreat, albeit with one with a mainstream jazz soundtrack.

Originally founded by Carol Stone and Woody Woodard as a bi-annual affair held in the fall and spring, the festival is now in its 17th year. Earlier this year the festival parted ways with it founders in an acrimonious and public split which one festival regular described as like a divorce in which the locals were forced to take one side or the other. However, the show must go on. And go on it did, with much of the original structure and format, as well as the emphasis on both swing and groove jazz styles, intact.

Groove was certainly in the air both nights at the concerts by the major headliners, the Yellowjackets (Friday night) and Javon Jackson with Les McCann (Saturday night), held at the Our Lady Star of the Sea Auditorium, which truth be told was actually a CYO rec hall/gym, with a capacity of 500-1,000. But the setting made for an intimate concert performance and the sound was perfectly fine, whether you were sitting at half court or behind the basket, so to speak. The crowd then filtered out to about half a dozen clubs situated on the town’s main beachfront drag, with patrons hustling between venues doing their best to catch nearly every act, even if in mid-set. There were even trollies and buses which served as shuttles for those who didn’t like hoofing it in the fall night.

Enough talk of the logistics. With festivals and concerts, people come for the music and only care about logistics if there are problems, which didn’t seem to be in evidence. The Yellowjackets played to a capacity crowd for their first set on Friday. At this point in their evolution, the group has so much material to draw from and, given the stripped down presentation and mainstream leanings of the audience, they played with a minimum of electronic effects. The fact is, they’ve always been a band that’s plugged in but can swing hard too. Russell Ferrante played the acoustic piano for much of the night, using the synth for coloring and thickening. The return of Will Kennedy in the drum chair gives the rhythm section plenty of punch and bassist Jimmy Haslip manages to balance holding the bottom end with occasional doubling of melodic lines. Haslip’s solos were crowd-pleasers, exhibiting his considerable chops and good taste. Mintzer on tenor (and a little EWI) too is an important solo voice in a group that thrives on its dynamic and interactive sound. They performed some old material, mixed in with a few cuts from their forthcoming album on Mack Avenue. Although the second set was less well-attended (shows at other venues drew off much of the crowd), the band sounded even better the second time around, in the way that great working bands always do.

A big influence on the Yellowjackets, particularly keyboardist Ferrante, is the legendary soul-jazz pianist Les McCann. In fact, the group’s album Mint Jam from 2002 features a Ferrante song “Les is Mo” very much in tribute to McCann, who appeared at the festival on Saturday night with Javon Jackson and his band. McCann has been performing with Jackson on and off for the last three years, and the results are highly rewarding. Although Jackson is ostensibly sliding into the Eddie Harris role, he does so in his own voice, which is influenced not just by Harris (who was a lifelong friend and mentor to Jackson), but also John Coltrane. The group did a few songs associated with McCann and Harris, including “Cold Duck Time” and, of course, “Compared to What.” With the latter, McCann didn’t even need to sing the chorus. He merely signaled the crowd who came in en masse in tune and in rhythm for the “Gotta make it real, compared to what” line. Not that McCann needed help with his vocals. His voice sounded strong, particularly on the gospel-influenced duet performance of “With These Hands.” The group also refashioned McCann’s “Déjà vu” into “Vu-ja Day.” And the group performed some slightly more modern-sounding material from Jackson, but still very much in that grooving soul-jazz vibe McCann is famous for.

Perhaps the most impressive thing about McCann’s performance was the way that he locked in with the rhythm section and supported other soloists. McCann’s music has always been about being “in the pocket” so we should expect nothing less, but he did seem energized by the group’s youth and vigor. Much of that vigor came from Jackson, who managed to act as bandleader yet still make it feel like a collaborative effort, and from guitarist David Gilmore, who played with a 70s style sound and feel during the ensemble parts, but could also get more modernist during his solo spots. The rhythm section featured Gregory Jones on bass and a young man subbing for Anthony Benson, Jr. on drums. The latter, a student from Mulgrew Miller’s jazz program at William Paterson, was an able fill-in for McClenty Hunter and never dropped a beat. In his introduction of the young drummer, Jackson teased him about having played with “nobody.” In fact, there was plenty of teasing and playful asides between Jackson and McCann, the former upgrading his elder for his unabashed love of Kobe Bryant and taking hits in turn about being from New Jersey. Their love and respect for each other are apparent in that regard. It truly is one of the great things about the jazz genre, in which multi-generational bands can bring out the best in both worlds.

It is true that McCann has not been hugely active as a live performer, mostly due to a stroke several years back, but he is by no means retired. He has performed about 50 shows with Jackson in the last three years or so. We should all take notice that the man who has influenced several generations of soul-jazz keyboardists and bands (from Richard Tee through the Roots) is very much alive and playing well. I recommend going to see him with Jackson whenever they come to a venue in your vicinity.

Headlining shows at the as-elegant-as-it-sounds Victorian Gardens at the Marquis De Lafayette Hotel were the Terell Stafford group, featuring Tim Warfield on Friday night and the Ralph Peterson Unity Project, with Sean Jones and Gary Thomas, on Saturday night. Both bands included organist Pat Bianchi, a truly underrated player who assimilated his swinging and funky sound into two very different groups. Needless to say, there was some serious blowing on trumpet both nights. Stafford has become a formidable soloist and bandleader and Jones displays the chops of a young Freddie Hubbard. Other artists appearing at the clubs around town were Philadelphia-based guitarist Monnette Sudler, vibes player Joe Baione, singer Demetria Joyce Bailey, Chris Bergson Blues Band, singer Taeko Fukao and guitarist Bob DeVos. None are household names on the national jazz scene, but all showed that they deserve more notice if given the opportunity.

During the day, there were also clinics and jam sessions, geared to younger players and audiences. It all added up to a very nice two days of music and good vibes. Introducing one of the concerts at the Star of the Sea “auditorium,” the mayor of Cape May excitedly spoke about plans to renovate the Convention Center along the ocean promenade in time for 2012 in the least. But the audience comes for the music and for the town. Both were in great form in Cape May this November.

Originally Published