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Exit 0 International Jazz Festival: In the Spirit

JT publisher Lee Mergner reports from festival in Cape May, N.J.

Etienne Charles performing at the 2013 Exit 0 International Jazz Festival in Cape May, NJ
Frederic Yonnet in performance at the Exit 0 International Jazz Festival in Cape May, N.J.
Gary Bartz in performance at the Exit 0 International Jazz Festival in Cape May, N.J.
Bruce Barth in performance at the Exit 0 International Jazz Festival in Cape May, N.J.
Eric Wright and Michael Kline at the Exit 0 International Jazz Festival in Cape May, N.J.

Midway through his performance at the First Presbyterian Church in Cape May, N.J., during the Exit 0 International Jazz Festival, pianist Marc Cary stood up and told the audience, “We want to get you in the spirit.” An audience member responded from an otherwise quiet crowd, “You’re in the right place.” Indeed, the audiences and the artists at the festival seemed to be very much in the spirit and in the right place throughout the three-day festival. It wasn’t clear if it was due to the setting, the music or the audience, but every venue was packed with respectful listeners who didn’t need to be shushed or told to turn off their smartphones. Keith Jarrett would have approved.

For more than 15 years, the town of Cape May had been host to a jazz festival originally organized by two diehard jazz fans, Carol Stone and Woody Woodland, who had a keen appreciation and dedication to mainstream and straight-ahead jazz, with a smattering of blues. The couple acted as the jovial hosts of the twice-a-year jazz party that had its regulars, both locals and out-of-towners, who supported the festival year after year. For a variety of reasons-political, economic, philosophical-the two ended their association with the festival and the city of Cape May, creating an artistic or musical vacuum in that area until the Exit 0 International Jazz Festival came along to fill the niche.

Exit 0 (as in zero) refers to the exit number for Cape May from the Garden State Parkway, which runs down the coast of New Jersey from the New York/New Jersey border near Nyack to the very southernmost tip, where this storied resort sits. Nearly equidistant from New York City, Philadelphia and Baltimore, the quaint and historic resort town is renowned for its Victorian architecture and bed-and-breakfast hotels that seem to have more in common with a New England town than a Jersey Shore resort.

The Exit 0 Festival, which debuted in October 2012-a week after Hurricane Sandy blew through town-is produced by longtime booking agent and arts consultant Michael Kline, who ironically enough came to Cape May from New Orleans in 2005, immediately after Katrina leveled much of that city. Sandy left Cape May relatively unscathed, saving its wrath for more northern coastal areas, but the festival was nonetheless given a tough challenge to bring audiences from major Northeast cities at a time when its residents were still reeling from storm damage. This year the skies were clear with no storms in the immediate past or future. And Kline’s production team (Spyboy Productions plus a host of volunteers) ran the festival like a well-oiled machine.

Like its predecessor, Exit 0 consisted of a concert performance by a high-profile headliner on Friday and Saturday nights, surrounded by a host of shows at clubs and venues (all located within a few blocks of each other), both after hours and on the weekend afternoons. In short, from early Friday evening until Sunday evening, Cape May became a mini jazz mecca. The main concert performances this year were by Dianne Reeves (Friday) and Eddie Palmieri (Saturday), but the secondary performances by artists such as Cary, Etienne Charles, Jaimeo Brown, Joe Locke, Henry Butler and Kenny Garrett were often just as impressive, and all were very well attended. For the Saturday afternoon free performance by Garrett and his quintet, the Convention Hall venue was, as the doorperson informed me, “freed out.” No worries, the shutouts just went down the street for an energetic show from the ebullient Charles at Harry’s Bar, where listeners even sat on the floor for a better view of the action. Charles and his sextet performed many of the songs from his latest album, Creole Soul, which neatly combines his Caribbean roots (Trinidad, Martinique and Jamaica) with jazz improvisation. Presented live, it’s a crowd-pleasing brio that moves an audience to dance, sing along and clap in time, not necessarily common responses at a jazz gig.

Much of that crowd then converged on the First Presbyterian Church, which hosted numerous shows all weekend, including an unusual set by drummer Jaimeo Brown, with saxophonist Jaleel Shaw and guitarist (and sample-triggerman) Chris Sholar. The church was an apt setting for this genre-bending performance, which paid tribute to the past while edging sonically into the future. Using samples of vocal chants by quilters of the Gee’s Bend area of Alabama as a foundation both melodic and rhythmic, the trio took off on lengthy and appropriately soaring improvisations. My preconception about the Exit 0 audience was that this music-not really swinging and replete with lengthy solos, a Fender Strat guitar and samples-would be a bit too experimental for them, but they seemed enchanted with Brown’s earthy yet spiritual approach. Even Brown’s young daughter got into the act, providing both a sing-songy sample for one tune and real live giggling from the audience between tunes. It reminded me of a wedding where noise from a baby or toddler bestows an informal benediction to the ceremony.

Perhaps the greatest benefit of a festival like this coming to a small town like Cape May is the sense of community and good vibes that pervade during the weekend. I was at a birding festival two weeks before (Cape May is actually one of the premier bird watching spots in North America), and a similar sense of “we’re here together to share our love of this THING” reigned supreme that weekend. During Exit 0, the seashore town becomes a veritable jazz village. I imagine that it must be like that in Sundance when Hollywood comes to their town for the annual film festival, albeit on a larger scale. Although Cape May has many year-round residents, there’s no question that early November is offseason, with some of the hotels and shops closed until the spring. Yet the jazz festival brings a palpable sense of energy to the town. And there were plenty of gourmet restaurants doing business.

There certainly was plenty of energy at the opening night concert at the 600-seat Convention Hall venue, which was nicely converted into a large ballroom. Headliner Dianne Reeves has evolved into one of the music’s most powerful and charismatic performers. Whether paying homage to Sarah Vaughan or showcasing some new material from her upcoming album Beautiful Life, Reeves commands an audience with a combination of jaw-dropping vocal chops, sophisticated arrangements and a warm self-assured stage presence. You can count on one hand the jazz singers who have that kind of raw power in performance in a larger venue: Dee Dee Bridgewater, Kurt Elling, Gregory Porter and René Marie are the only contemporary jazz singers who readily come to mind. Accompanied by long-time musical director Peter Martin on piano, guitarist Romero Lubambo, bassist Robert Hurst and drummer Terreon Gully, Reeves glided through a set that featured her own inimitable mix of Brazilian, African, soul and jazz styles.

For many years, one of Reeves’ great live tricks has been to sing either her introduction of the band members or her between-song patter. It’s something that never fails to delight an audience, in large part because it’s always very tuneful. It sure as hell beats the usual jazz leader patter of “On bass is …, on drums…, and our next song is one of my favorite standards.” But singing patter or intros is not her only distinctive talent.

In introducing “Misty,” a rendition dedicated to Sarah Vaughan, Reeves told the story of their first meeting, when Reeves sang the praises of the elder singer without knowing to whom she was talking. Later, Reeves said that she learned from Vaughan not just the technical side of singing, but “how to be yourself.” Indeed, even when she sang overtly in Vaughan’s style, Reeves sounded unmistakably like herself, not like some vocal mimic. Reeves’ voice is an impressive instrument with incredible range and she uses melisma not in that ostentatious “American Idol meets Mariah Carey” way, but to bring out the melodies and rhythms of the music. Reeves often uses wordless vocals, but her scat is not really scat at all, at least not in that Ella style. Perhaps the best example of this is on an original in which she paid tribute to a wide range of non-English-speaking singers who influenced her, including Miriam Makeba, Cesaria Evora, Celia Cruz and Elis Regina. Somehow she managed to evoke the native lands and styles of all of them. Few jazz singers have such facility with different languages and accents.

Reeves is a storyteller at heart, and not just between tunes. Performing Fleetwood Mac’s “Dreams” and Bob Marley’s “Waiting in Vain” from Beautiful Life, Reeves seemed to wring out a special meaning from lyrics that would seem to be all too familiar to any middle-aged audience. All in all, it was a powerful and polished show from a singer who seems to get better every year. Not unlike Sonny Rollins, Reeves has a hard time making recordings that come up to the high standard of her live shows.

That same opening night included a bluesy and electric performance from harmonica player Frederic Yonnet, who glided from funk to blues and back, in a crowd-pleasing package that may lack nuance but delivered the goods in a noisy bar late at night. In contrast, on that same evening, Gary Bartz and Bruce Barth played sublime duets in the church, which became my favorite venue, thanks to a top-notch Yamaha piano and clean acoustics with a dab of natural reverb.

Eddie Palmieri and his band kicked out the Latin jazz jam on Saturday night back in the Convention Hall, but I decided to head back to the church for two sets by Cary and his Focus Trio, featuring bassist Mimi Jones and drummer Sameer Gupta. Material for their two sets was pulled from their most recent album on Motema. For the life of me, I don’t understand why Cary is not more well-known or critically acclaimed. Perhaps it’s because he has been such an accomplished and complementary sideman (Abbey Lincoln, Betty Carter, Will Calhoun, others) that he’s somewhat overlooked as a leader, but Cary is a prolific composer and powerhouse of a pianist, strongly influenced by the two-handed styling of McCoy Tyner. He also is comfortable playing electric keyboards and he attacks the Fender Rhodes with the same strong left hand and fleet right hand he brings to the acoustic. Jones, who was playing with the trio for the first time, more than held her own through the often breakneck tempos. Gupta’s use of tablas along with the standard drum kit brought an unusual rhythmic flavor to what would otherwise be modernist hard bop. A highlight of the first set was “Another World,” an original from Cary’s For the Love of Abbey album, dedicated to Abbey Lincoln, and based on the five-note Close Encounters of the Third Kind theme. He said that Lincoln was a person who was grounded, but also had her head “way up there.” The keyboardist might as well have been speaking of himself. Cary’s music is strongly rooted in mainstream jazz, but often takes off in flights of improvisation, leaving behind more conventional forms.

Motema Music was a sponsor of the festival and many of its artists were featured, including the label head Jana Herzen, who performed a late-night set with bassist Charnett Moffett. Herzen plays guitar and sings in a jazzy singer-songwriter mode, and with Moffett’s virtuosic time-keeping thrown in, the result is very sophisticated jazz-pop, like Mingus-era Joni Mitchell. Moffett also took a solo turn and showed the intimate club audience what he could do with every part of his custom acoustic bass. Later that night, the label hosted a festival cast party, and pianist Henry Butler sat in for a few tunes, giving the festival crew and artists a unique treat. The next day Butler closed out the festival with two sets with his trio in a local club.

Although the overall size of the festival (overall attendance announced as 3,500) may seem modest to those used to the massive and sprawling festivals in Montreal or Detroit, I found the size just right for my taste. In about 36 hours, I saw shows by nearly a dozen emerging and established artists performing in packed but comfortable venues with excellent sound. And all for engaged audiences who seemed receptive to whatever came their way. Spyboy is planning on a spring version of the festival on May 30-June 1, 2014, with dates for the fall of 2014 pending. For more information, go to their website.

Originally Published