Festival promoter Michael Kline knows a thing or two about throwing a party. As a former resident of New Orleans and on-air host at radio station WWOZ, he had the sound of brass bands, second line parades and jazz ingrained in his bones. Kline escaped Hurricane Katrina in 2005, leaving his beloved Crescent behind and returning to Cape May, N.J., where he spent summers while growing up in Reading, Penn. When the Cape May Jazz Festival, which ran from 1994 to 2010, went bankrupt, Kline launched the Exit Zero Jazz Festival in 2012, the same year that Hurricane Sandy ravaged much of the Jersey shore. “Cape May was very lucky,” Kline recalled of that inaugural Exit Zero event (so named because Cape May is the last exit off the Garden State Parkway). “There was a lot of sand on Beach Avenue, but for the most part, Cape May came out of Sandy unscathed, unlike every other beach town in New Jersey. However, we took a hit with our audience in New Jersey who were dealing with the aftermath of the storm and not able to get to Cape May. We had a full lineup of artists for that first one and a few committed fans.”
Since then, the Exit Zero Jazz Festival has grown by leaps and bounds, expanding its core audience of shore dwellers and denizens of nearby Philadelphia to include jazz lovers from New York City (2 1/2 hours away on the Garden State Parkway), Baltimore (three hours away) and Washington D.C (nearly four hours away). It’s a drive worth taking. Where else can one combine the pleasures of walking on endless stretches of empty beach in the off-season, taking in the charming Victorian architecture in this historic resort town on the Atlantic Ocean and digging world-class jazz, blues and R&B? And since it’s true that you can take the boy out of New Orleans but you can’t take New Orleans out of the boy, Kline is always mindful of booking authentic music from the Crescent City at his biannual bashes. The Fall edition of the Exit Zero Jazz Festival, held from Nov. 9-11, was represented by New Orleans favorite son Kermit Ruffins, the ebullient trumpeter/singer and leader of his Barbecue Swingers; trombonist Big Sam Williams, a one-time member of the Dirty Dozen Brass Band whose Funky Nation delivers a boisterous blend of funk, jazz, rock and hip-hop on the bandstand (including their audience favorite, “Big Ole Booty”); and the New Breed Brass Band, which led beachfront second line parades to Conventional Hall each day.
While visiting Cape May during High Season (from June to Labor Day) may involve teeming crowds of people everywhere and dramatically inflated rates at beachfront hotels and numerous bed-and-breakfast places in the landmark district (doubled or tripled, in some cases), the off-season is mellow and affordable by comparison. And the music at either Spring or Fall editions of the Exit Zero Jazz Festival is always kicking.
Bassist extraordinaire Marcus Miller (pictured at top) led his band of young killer soloists, including trumpeter Russell Gunn and alto saxophonist Alex Hahn, through a powerhouse set at Schmidtchen Theater, a professional performance space in Lower Cape Regional High School. Along with showcasing material from his latest Blue Note album, Laid Black, including the slap-bass showcase “Trip Trap” and an urgently slamming “Untamed,” Miller performed stretched-out renditions of “Tutu,” the title track he wrote for Miles Davis’ 1986 album, and a stunning recreation of “Amandla,” the title track of Davis’ 1989 album. He also delivered some virtuoso slap bass on an instrumental version of The Temptations’ 1972 hit single “Papa Was a Rolling Stone” and performed a beautifully lyrical fretless-bass rendition of “I Loves You Porgy” from the Gershwin opera, Porgy & Bess. In a touching moment during his exhilarating set, Miller paid tribute to his 93-year-old father, who had just passed away two months ago, with a solo bass clarinet version of the old spiritual “How Great Thou Art,” a nod to the man who played piano and organ with the church choir every Sunday and instilled a love of music in young Marcus. “I was his page-turner in church, which was a lot of pressure for a seven-year-old,” he confided to the packed house at Schmidtchen Theater.
But the biggest surprise of the set came from guest vocalist Kevin Whalum, brother of tenor-sax star Kirk Whalum. His heartfelt tribute to the late, great jazz singer Al Jarreau, who died on Feb. 12, 2017, included a rendition of “Since I Fell For You” (the Tin Pan Alley tune that Jarreau breathed new life into on 1986’s Double Vision, a highly successful smooth-jazz release by Bob James and Davis Sanborn) and a striking a cappella version of Jarreau’s “Alonzo” (from the late singer’s 1980 album This Time). But the most chilling moments of Whalum’s three-song guest appearance came on a spectacular recreation of Jarreau’s famous scat-fueled reading of Paul Desmond’s “Take Five” from his 1977 album, Look to the Rainbow. That one had the audience on its feet en masse.
Miller encored with a decidedly funky throwdown, telling the audience, “I know this is the Exit Zero Jazz Festival but this one ain’t got nuthin’ to do with jazz,” before launching into “Da Butt,” his tribute to ladies with large derrieres that appeared in a poolside dance scene from Spike Lee’s 1988 film School Daze.
From his dramatic a cappella opening on Bob Dylan’s “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” (“Oh where have you been my blue-eyed son?”), singer Kurt Elling (pictured above) wove a spell on the Convention Hall audience with his resonant baritone voice, commanding stage presence and peerless scat abandon. Performing tunes from his new album, The Questions, including an intimate reading of Carla Bley’s minimalist gem, “Lawns,” Elling excelled at witty between songs banter during his set that sometimes got political. Regarding the Trump presidency, the outspoken crooner mused, “How the hell did we get here and how deep is this shit gonna get?” He blended in bits of Kerouac-ian spoken-word raps about life on the road then offered insightful commentary about maintaining domestic tranquility on the buoyant, jivey swinger, “Did You Call Her Today?” Elling further delighted his fans with a vocalese rendition of bassist Marc Johnson’s “Samurai Cowboy” (from his 2011 album, The Gate), and he dipped into the metaphysical on the searching “A Happy Thought,” a poem by Franz Wright about not fearing death, set to music.
The 82-year-old NEA Jazz Master Carla Bley (pictured above) played piano and conducted the 12-piece Liberation Music Orchestra, founded in 1969 by the late bassist/composer and longtime Ornette Coleman sideman Charlie Haden, on politically tinged material from the group’s 2005 album Not In Our Name and 2016’s Time/Life. With Steve Swallow on electric bass, Matt Wilson on drums and a crew of world-class improvisors in guitarist Steve Cardenas, alto saxophonist Loren Stallman, tenor saxophonists Chris Speed and Chet Doxas, trombonist Marshall Gilkes, trumpeters Seneca Black and Dave Smith, French hornist Vincent Chauncey and tuba player Joe Daley, Bley led the ensemble on Haden’s zen-like classic “Silence,” her own foreboding minor key “Blue Anthem” and a reggae-tinged rendition of the Pat Metheny-David Bowie tune “This Is Not America” (originally from the 1985 movie, The Falcon and the Snowman). They closed out their Convention Hall set in poignant fashion with a re-harmonized “Amazing Grace,” arranged by Bley and featuring brilliant solos by Cardenas, Swallow and Smith.
Other highlights at the Fall edition of the Exit Zero Jazz Festival included young Gyspy Jazz violin sensation Daisy Castro leading her troupe of Djangophiles in the Fins/Ugly Mug tent on “Minor Swing” and a lovely, lyrical reading of the Ink Spots “I Don’t Want to Set the World on Fire” and pedal steel guitar monster Roosevelt Collier, who ripped it up in Carney’s Pub with his funk-fusion jam band on raucous renditions of Pee Wee Ellis’ “The Chicken” (a Jaco Pastorius staple) and Herbie Hancock’s Headhunters classic, “Actual Proof,” before sliding into a soulful, sanctified reading of “Amazing Grace.” Collier wore a few layers on the bandstand on this frigid day in November, at one point explaining to the audience, “I’m from Florida, y’all! The coldest it ever gets down there is 60. It’s very cold out there today. That’s why these songs are so long, ’cause I gotta get warm up in here.”
And finally, a word about the intimate duet of French upright bass virtuoso Francois Moutin and fearless singer Kavita Shah: Magnifique! Drawing on material from their aptly titled first album, Interplay, this daring, improvising duet created quite a stir at the Sea Salt restaurant in the Ocean Club Hotel with their samba-fied rendition of the French classic “La Vie En Rose” along with a vocalese version of Bill Evans’ “Interplay,” a beautiful rendition of the Rodgers & Hart standard “Falling in Love With Love” and Moutin’s playful vocalese number “Bliss.”
The next Exit Zero Jazz Festival will be held in Cape May from April 12-14, 2019. Confirmed acts for that Spring edition include jazz legend Chick Corea, performing with his Trilogy trio featuring bassist Christian McBride and drummer Brian Blade, singers Lizz Wright and Jose James, and the Preservation Hall Jazz Band, a New Orleans institution. For more information on tickets, check exit0jazzfest.com. To inquire about accommodations, visit capemay.com/stay.