Now in its fifth year, the Exit Zero Jazz Festival has settled into a consistent groove, bringing top-notch jazz to the scenic coastal New Jersey town of Cape May. Produced by the tireless Michael Kline, a former New Orleans resident who moved up north after Hurricane Katrina, this year’s fall edition (Nov.11th-13th; there’s another each spring) was one of the best yet, combining big-name headliners like Wynton
Marsalis and Cécile McLorin Salvant with a diverse lineup of performers, including a strong contingent of Cuban artists, plus an impressive array of local talent.
The main attraction on opening night was McLorin Salvant, who performed at Schmidtchen Theater, a large, well-appointed arena on a high-school campus a few miles from downtown. Backed by fellow 20-something phenom pianist Aaron Diehl and his trio, McLorin Salvant showcased the dazzling technique, range, wit and poise that have made her easily the best jazz singer to come along in a generation. She sang a mix of clever originals and expertly chosen covers, mostly of ’20s and ’30s vintage, invigorated with a decidedly modern, often ironic sensibility. Her closing rendition of “Something’s Coming” from West Side Story was nothing short of stunning, as she reached for and hit the song’s final, impossibly high note,leaving the audience in a state of awe.
Marsalis took the main stage with his quintet (saxophonist Walter Blanding, pianist Dan Nimmer, bassist Carlos Henriquez and drummer Ali Jackson) the following night, after appearing a year ago with the full Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra (JLCO). This is a group that’s been together for a decade now and their sense of familiarity was evident from the start. For those who tend to pigeonhole Marsalis as a conservative player, this was a revealingly adventurous set, ranging from the avant garde-leaning opener “The Magic Hour” to the bawdy swing of Jelly Roll Morton’s “Tom Cat Blues”, featuring growling, muted trumpet. Jackson stood out even in this esteemed
company for his inventiveness and enthusiasm. One of the festival’s nicest moments came at the end of the set, when Marsalis brought out a pair of clearly delighted young musicians to join the group: percussionist Marcos Lopez and trumpeter Kalí Rodríguez-Peña. In a conversation later that evening, Rodríguez-Peña shared that he first met Marsalis during the JLCO’s visit to Cuba in 2010, when Marsalis gave him
a trumpet and that he’s been mentoring him ever since. Lopez and Rodríguez-Peña were also part of Israeli flute player Itai Kriss’ exciting young group Telavana, which melded Israeli and Cuban rhythms in energetic sets at both the Cape May Convention Hall and Congress Hall, a 200-year-old landmark hotel that boasts of having hosted four U.S. presidents.
Several other groups at the festival explored Cuban influences: Canadian soprano saxophonist Jane Bunnett’s dynamic all-female sextet Maqueque mixed traditional and modern AfroCaribbean sounds with exceptional musicianship during a rousing early afternoon
Convention Hall performance while Cuban-born pianist Omar Sosa joined with German trumpeter Joo Kraus and Puerto Rican percussionist (and former Weather Report member) Manolo Badrena to present a more experimental vision of Latin jazz, drawing on free improvisation and electronics, along with danceable rhythms and multilingual chants during a well-received show at local restaurant Alathea’s.
Legendary Philadelphia guitarist Pat Martino, who had to cancel his date at last year’s festival due to illness, returned for a set of fast-paced, no-nonsense postbop. He tore through classic tunes like Sonny Rollins’ “Oleo” and John Coltrane’s “Impressions”, ably backed by a quintet featuring organ player Pat Bianchi and a pair of hard-hitting horns. In an entirely different musical vein, the Squirrel Nut Zippers, who had a brief moment of stardom during the bestforgotten ’90s Swing craze, delivered a rollicking set of hot hillbilly jazz to a packed Convention Hall house.
After hours, the action shifted to the beachfront clubs, where New Orleans seemed to be the thing. On a single evening, visitors could hear pianist/singer and Treme stalwart Davis Rogan at an upstairs bar; the raucous High and Mighty Brass Band from Brooklyn at one downstairs venue; and fiery early-jazz revivalists Davina and the Vagabonds at another.