32nd Cape May Jazz Festival: Tribute to the Count
In the most memorable example, occurring early Sunday afternoon, Walker threw a rousing party inviting the audience's full participation. Providing what might have been the most outright fun and humorous hour of the weekend, the popular, frequent festival attraction and jam-session overseer, stormed through the audience to yank benign listeners onto their feet, practically morphing them into spontaneous performers. A stranger to the proceedings (or to a healing service at a revival tent show) could not have suspected that the obese woman slouching in the corner with a cane would make for such an enjoyable singer and dancer. Yet with Walker's exuberant, contagious coaxing, there she was, loving the spotlight, unabashedly jiggling her flesh and belting out lyrics while the audienceand Walker herselfcheered and complimented the woman like a beloved sister.
These afternoon jams, which are meant in part to grant exposure to local and rising talents, acutely fulfilled their mission by showcasing two particularly notable young artists who, if the fates behave as they should, will surely make significant and exciting contributions to the jazz and blues worlds for many future decades. The New Jersey Network public TV station sent a camera crew to the "Alan Weber and Friends" Saturday jam at the dedicated blues venue of Cabanasnot to feature Alan Weber but to tape and interview 15-year-old Jay Gaunt, who sat in on harmonica. Although the New Jersey teen didn't exhibit the physical comfort level on stage as a more experienced adult, he played with the dexterity and soul of a man who's slugged from more than one dusty moonshine bottle at more than one Mississippi Delta juke joint. The authenticity was enough to make a blues lover lament the direction his manager (his mother) says he's about to take: away from blues and toward jazz. Still, if his jazz harp playing exhibits the same depth and expertise in channeling the old masters, listeners should expect to revel no less in watching him play in the festival's jazz halls in upcoming years.
But for all of Gaunt's demonstrated maturity of sound, the festival's unrivaled golden child would have to be Immanuel Wilkins, saxophonist for the Philly-based youth band Little Jazz Giants. With all of 12 years in his pocket, Wilkins could have undoubtedly convinced a blindfolded listener that he was listening to a sax icon like Charlie Parker. With utter self-assuredness, Wilkins blew his horn with perfect accuracy, then layered his output with style and flair. Soloing or playing with his bandmates on jazz standards like "Watermelon Man," "Footprints," and "Lardis," his playing went beyond the mechanics of the notes with a sound more spiritual, or even preternatural, than deliberately constructed through hours of woodshedding.
After Wilkins' Sunday afternoon jam set, lucky musicians and fans caught a pregnant moment watching lauded saxophonist Michael Pedicin share some tips with the young, prodigious protege out on the sidewalk. In his customary polite and humble fashion, the student graciously accepted the impromptu lesson, thereby assuring his admirers that he will most likely be around for a long time, making his mark not merely as a phenom but as a respectful and respected steward of the jazz tradition.
The Headliners: Count Basie Orchestra and Ravi Coltrane
But as much as the women and "youngsters" gripped the imagination of audiences, a much larger number of people came specifically to witness the headliners. Opening night showcased The Count Basie Orchestra, directed by Bill Hughes, who is one of four band members to remain from the Count's days. Throughout a show that ended in a standing ovation, white-haired whispers of "I used to love this song," echoed through the aisles during standards like "Sweet Georgia Brown" and "In a Mellow Tone." To the uninitiated, there was no discernible difference between the orchestras of the present and past, but some of the CBO's most dedicated adherents admitted aloud that the evening's performance lacked some of the coherence and pizazz that exhilarated listeners during the late director's tenure. For evidence, this minority view pointed to the relative youth and inexperience of a handful of the current musicians, though cameo singer Lacy Julius Brown may have disappointed them as well. He led his selected pieces in a deep voice that, although polished and rich, was no match for his over-confident showmanship. Only Jimmy Rushing and Joe Williams made powerful and lasting impressions during their respective tours of duty with the Basie band; subsequent vocalists have been done no favors by the inevitable comparisons with either of their legendary forebears.