by joel roberts
The summer crowds may be long gone from Cape May, the historic resort beach town at the southern tip of the Jersey Shore, but for a weekend in November each year (and a second weekend in May) the town is filled by an eager throng of jazz fans from New York, Philly and beyond for the Exit 0 Jazz Festival. This year's festival (Nov. 7th-9th) kicked off on Friday night with The Cookers, the allstar group of jazz veterans featuring Donald Harrison, Billy Harper and Eddie Henderson, at the event's main venue, Convention Hall, which sits directly on the Cape May boardwalk. Unfortunately for many fans coming from out of town, the early start time, 6:30 pm, made for late arrivals and only a brief peek at the hard-hitting band. Any disgruntlement, however, was soon appeased by singer René Marie. Backed by a stellar quartet that she gave plenty of room to roam, Marie performed a focused, intense set drawn mostly from her recent tribute to Eartha Kitt. Eschewing imitation of Kitt's highly distinctive style (save for a purring spoken intro to Kitt's trademark "I Wanna Be Evil"), Marie tackled tunes associated with the late singer/actress, including "C'est Si Bon", "My Heart Belongs to Daddy" and "Peel Me a Grape", which Marie turned into an uproarious and commanding anthem of female empowerment. A forceful stage presence, when she sings the line, "When I say do it, jump to it", you know she means business. Marie, who doesn't shy away from disclosing her personal struggles and demons, closed her engaging set with some as-yet-unrecorded original compositions, including the heartrending "Go Home" and uplifting "Blessings".
Saturday night's early headliner was the young New Orleans-born phenom (and New York resident of several years) Jon Batiste and his band Stay Human. An accomplished pianist and singer and member of one of the Crescent City's most esteemed musical families, Batiste performs mostly traditional tunes drawn from the New Orleans canon, but with an entirely modern attitude. Above all, he's an entertainer with tons of charisma and obvious crossover appeal- something jazz sorely needs. He opened his eclectic show with, of all things, a solo piano version of "The Star Spangled Banner", played with dramatic classical and Gershwin-esque flourishes, which quickly established the Juilliard-trained artist's pianistic bonafides. After that, he brought his band (saxophone, tuba, electric guitar, drums) onstage for thoroughly deconstructed and unpredictable readings of classic
fare like Jelly Roll Morton's "New Orleans Blues" and Scott Joplin's ragtime classic "The Entertainer", which delved into free jazz territory. By the set's end, Batiste was leading his band and the audience on a swinging second line through the hall, a fitting and ecstatic conclusion to a memorable performance.
Veteran pianist Monty Alexander followed with his Harlem-Kingston Express-a jazz trio set up to the leader's right and a reggae quartet to his left. The band alternates between the two styles, often within a single tune, playing separately, or, somewhat too infrequently, together. Between anecdotes about how he was discovered in the early '60s by Frank Sinatra while playing in a Miami club frequented by gangsters, Alexander delivered an energetic set that reached its pinnacle in a rousing version of Bob Marley's "No Woman, No Cry". Still, fans longing to hear more of
Alexander's celebrated straightahead jazz piano chops were left wanting.
Besides the headliners, the festival featured a wide variety of jazz, blues and funk acts in the clubs along Beach Avenue. Aleathea's, a restaurant in a stately Victorian hotel, hosted an overflow afternoon crowd for a winning set by the Aaron Parks piano trio, with bassist Ben Street and the great drummer Billy Hart. New York stalwart Johnny O'Neal brought his vintage swing and bebop piano and vocals to the same venue for an entertaining late-night show. Some unexpected highlights included the Feedel Band, a brass-heavy group of Ethiopian musicians playing Fela Kutiinspired
Afrobeat in the Boiler Room, a club in the basement of the historic Congress Hall hotel; and a fine straightahead quartet led by a pair of Rowan University jazz educators, guitarist Brian Betz and baritone saxophonist Denis DiBlasio.
While some more afternoon events and slightly more adventurous programming would be welcome, the Exit 0 festival is a great destination for metro New York jazz fans looking for a weekend getaway. Cape May is a manageable, walkable town with excellent restaurants, charming Victorian architecture and, on at least two weekends a year, some great jazz.
© richard conde photography