Exit Zero Jazz Festival Highlights: Terence Blanchard, Captain Black Big Band, Nate Smith & Kinfolk (FESTIVAL RECAP)

“All you have to do is turn your chair around.”  Yes, everything about the Exit Zero Jazz Festival in Cape May, NJ on October 2nd was literally that easy.  On top of that, we enjoyed balmy 75-degree bright sunshine with a nice ocean breeze for a full day of exciting music.  The stages were only about 75 yards apart and those of us who had VIP or media passes didn’t even need our chairs.  We could just move to the set-up chairs in front of each stage. When music finished at one, it would begin at the other within ten minutes or so, making for continuous music from 11 AM until a little after 7:30 PM. This was the first year the festival, a biannual event since 2012, was held at Ferry Park, an ideal lush green grass park adjacent to the Cape May – Lewes DE Ferry Terminal, which has a large building and restaurant as well as ample parking. Although the audience was a decent size, around a 1000 probably, the site has capacity for more and if the festival can stay in this location, it has room to grow.

This was the most prestigious lineup the festival had booked over the course of three days with Robert Randolph, Nicholas Payton, Big Chief Donald Harrison and Chris Botti among Friday’s main acts with Paquito D’Rivera, Jazzmeia Horn, and Kenny Garrett headlining Sunday. They also had the Convention Hall venue for Saturday and Sunday featuring Davina & the Vagabonds and Roosevelt Collier, among three other acts. As mentioned, though, this writer was only able to attend Ferry Park on Saturday.

The “breakfast set,” as dubbed by promoter Michael Kline, began at 11 AM with vocalist Martina DeSilva and her trio featuring pianist Liya Grigoryan, bassist Russell Hall, and drummer Charles Goold. DeSilva is fluent is English, Spanish, and Portuguese and devoted at least half of her set to Brazilian music, covering a couple from Jobim, including an inventive version of the world’s most-played song, “The Girl from Ipanema.” The set also had some blues, notably “Baby, Won’t You Please Come Home,” featuring terrific soloing from the smiling trio, especially the tandem of Hall and Goold. DeSilva’s animated presence and perfect pitch made for an auspicious start to the day.

One anticipates great sets from the better-known artists, in this case Orrin Evans’ Captain Black Big Band, Terence Blanchard and the E-Collective with the Turtle Island String Quartet, and Dee Bridgewater and the Memphis Soulphony. Yet, a festival of this magnitude is sure to produce some pleasant surprises. The first came from Cameroonian bassist, bandleader, and vocalist Francis Mbappe & FM Tribe, delivering a stirring set of funk, rock, jazz and infectious African rhythms. Mbappe, with his charismatic persona leads with his bass, almost like a guitarist, melodic, funky, rhythmic, and powerful as he fronts a seven-piece band with drums, percussion, guitar, keyboards, trumpet, and sax.  He got the crowd involved early on the third tune with rhythmic clapping while he and the Tribe excited the audience with a set that included “Need Somebody,” “Mulema,” “international Man,” “Africa,” and “Bessoua.”  The second pleasant surprise was Raul Midon & Lionel Luecke. Although familiar with Luecke, the featured artist was the blind Midon, who proved to be a great vocalist, acoustic guitarist and an unconventional “triple threat,” playing stand-up drums, singing, and playing guitar simultaneously. Paired with Luecke’s electric guitar on about half of the set, Midon broke out his vocal trumpet stylings while Luecke contributed percussive guitar and vocal licks.

The Captain Black Big Band, led by Orrin Evans, offered tunes mostly from their Grammy-nominated The Intangible Between (covered on these pages) with fiery solos from the six-piece front line of two trombonists (David Gibson and Reggie Watson), two saxophonists (Caleb Wheeler Curtis and Stacy Dillard), and two trumpeters (Tony DeSantis and Josh Evans).  The set was especially meaningful to leader and pianist Evans who had bassist Mathew Parrish and drummer Byron Landham, who anchored his first recording as a bandleader. The band is a collective with revolving members, several of whom were not “regulars” on this date. Thelonious Monk’s “Off Minor,” Roy Hargrove’s opener, “Into the Dawn,”  a David Bowie tune entitled “Kooks,” and Evans’ “That Too” were especially strong but the highlight was the closer with Evans singing “Blessed One,” which led to a standing ovation. 

Terence Blanchard’s set was highly anticipated, and he did not disappoint, playing music from his latest Blue Note release, Absence, honoring the music of Wayne Shorter (and covered on these pages). It was an intense hour of music that featured his E-Collective -pianist Fabian Almazan, guitarist Charles Altura, bassist David Ginyard and drummer Oscar Seaton.  Blanchard was coming off a historic week, as his opera Fire Shut Up in My Bones, opened at New York’s Metropolitan Opera, making it the first opera by an African American composer in the 136-year history of the venue.  Paired with the renowned Turtle Island String Quartet (TISQ), there some draw-dropping harmonics, and a clear highlight was a tune done by TISQ as on the album, “The Second Wave,” more of a bluegrass stomp feel than jazz but one that goes through several dramatic, energetic changes across its almost 11 minutes. It drew a standing ovation.  We heard bright, focused intense versions of the album’s highlights from Shorter’s “Fall,” “The Elders,” and “Diana” to the E-Collective’s funky “I Dare You,” the opener “Absence” and the haunting “Envisioned Reflections,” the latter two both composed by Ginyard.

Nate Smith + Kinfolk who just a few weeks ago issued Kinfolk 2: See the Birds (covered on these pages) performed as a quartet rather than their usual quintet that included keyboardist Jon Cowherd.  Nonetheless, powered by drummer Smith’s relentless rhythms, altoist Jaleel Shaw performed ferociously with stabbing guitar lines from Brad Allen Williams and bottom support from bassist Fima Ephron.  While some of their set was purely improvisational, they render at least a few selections from the album and their 2017 album Kinfolk 1: Postcards from Everywhere including “Altitude,” “Square Wheel,” “Rambo,” and “See the Birds” from the recent and “Morning and Allison” from the first. (don’t hold me to it, may have missed some). It was a powerful set that combined elements of jazz, rock, neo-soul, and a bit of hip-hop that held up, especially since they had to follow Blanchard’s electrifying performance.

This writer had witnessed Dee Bridgewater and her Memphis Soulphony’s set at Newport in 2019 and this version of that band (the same but for the keyboardist) was giving their first performance since the pandemic shutdown. They are the perfect closer, playing recognizable tunes from Memphis artists such as Al Green, The Staples Singers, Carla Thomas, Elvis, B.B. King, Bobby “Blue Bland, and Ann Peebles. Throw in Bridgewater’s commentary, her sexy showmanship which came to head bumping and grinding with her two female vocalists on King’s “The Thrill Is Gone” and it was impossible to sit still. Bridgewater grew up in Memphis and her narrative has a consistent thread of NEA Jazz Master, her set was filled with mostly blues and soul, filtered at times through a jazz lens, given her phrasing and vocal improvisations.  It was a great send-off for the two- and half-hour ride home.

You can be sure this writer will do everything possible to return to the Exit Zero Jazz Festival for the Soring version scheduled for May 13-15, 2022.  Michael Kline and Krewe did such an impressive job!

Photos by Michael Kline

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