Exit Zero Festival Offers Global Tastes, Diverse Artists


Omar Sosa performs at the Exit Zero Jazz Festival in Cape May, New Jersey, on Nov. 11.

(Photo: Richard Conde)

Festival producer Michael Kline escaped Hurricane Katrina in 2005, leaving his beloved New Orleans behind and returning to Cape May, New Jersey, where he spent summers while growing up in Reading, Pennsylvania.

Out of the ashes of the Cape May Jazz Festival—which ran from 1994 to 2010 and was produced by the couple Woody Woodland and Carol Stone—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 recalls 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.”

For the fifth autumn edition of the Exit Zero Jazz Festival, held Nov. 11–13 (there is also a spring edition in April), Kline booked a wide variety of acts showcasing the diversity of jazz in 2016. From the alluring vocals of Cécile McLorin Salvant and the percolating Afro-Cuban sounds of Jane Bunnett & Maqueque to the burning swing of the Pat Martino and Wynton Marsalis quintets, from the rollicking barrelhouse piano of Davina Sowers and her Vagabonds, the earthy blues of perennial Cape May favorite Frank Bey, the N’awlins flavored High and Mighty Brass Band and the Bollywood-meets-brass-band group Red Baraat, this Exit Zero had everything.

One of the most scintillating sets was turned in by Cuban pianist Omar Sosa, now a resident of Barcelona, who teamed with German trumpeter Joo Kraus and Puerto Rican percussionist and former Weather Reporter Manolo Badrena at local restaurant Aleathea’s.

While Sosa alternated between tender, mesmerizing passages at the piano and exhilarating, rhythmically charged vamps that had him standing and gyrating at his keyboard à la Little Richard, trumpeter Kraus played with echo, electronic loops and harmonizer effects on the spacious, ambient sections and blew lyrical muted trumpet on the ballads.

He also did some forceful rapping in German over an infectious groove and miraculously added deep tumbao bass lines on son montuno sections by mouthing the low-end lines directly into his trumpet mic.

As a duo, Sosa and Kraus have developed a nearly telepathic partnership over a few recordings and several tours. Badrena, on the other hand, was thrown into this gig on short notice, and he responded with typically intuitive brilliance. Through his mercurial vocals, which ranged from angelic and sonorous to Yoruban chants to crazy impromptu language, and his authoritative polyrhythms, Badrena was a force of nature, bringing muscle and groove and that all-important element of surprise to the proceedings.

At the packed Convention Hall, the Squirrel Nut Zippers, fronted by the audacious guitarist-singer-founder Jimbo Mathus, whipped up a frenzy with their retro originals, including the catchy “Hell” and “Lugubrious Whing Whang.” Lanky violinist Justin Carr almost stole the show with his searing solos and acrobatic stage presence which, at times, recalled vintage Pete Townshend.

Vocalist Ingrid Lucia, a recent addition to the band and formerly of the Flying Neutrinos, added a soulful quality to the hyped-up proceedings with her soft, Billie Holiday-style singing. The Convention Hall—the festival’s biggest venue—has undergone a radical reconstruction, so that the sound in the cavernous room is now much more acoustically hospitable for listeners than it was during the festival’s previous incarnation under Woodland and Stone.

Legendary guitarist Martino, a frequent visitor to Cape May from his home base in nearby Philadelphia, also played the Convention Hall with his working trio of organist Pat Bianchi and drummer Carmen Intorre, augmented by tenor saxophonist Adam Niewood and trumpeter Alex Norris.

The band burned brightly on uptempo romps like Sonny Rollins’ “Oleo” and John Coltrane’s “Impressions,” both of which showcased Martino’s fabled chops along with the blistering tenor work of rising star Niewood, son of the late tenorist and longtime Chuck Mangione sideman Gerry Niewood.

The horns left the stage for a soulful trio rendition of Charles Mingus’ “Duke Ellington’s Sound Of Love,” which featured the guitar great dipping into the deep blue shades of his six-string palette.

Over at the Paul Schmidtchen Theater, a spacious auditorium in the Lower Cape May Regional High School, Marsalis entertained a packed house with a swinging set by his quintet: pianist Dan Nimmer, saxophonist Walter Blanding Jr., bassist Carlos Henriquez and drummer Ali Jackson.

While Marsalis customarily sits in the back row with his Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra, he was front and center for this exhilarating set, which kicked off with his ambitious composition “The Magic Hour,” a four-movement suite that comprises blues, Afro-Cuban, swing and ballad sections.

The trumpeter drew excited shouts from the crowd with his high-register leaps on the swing section and his expressive plunger work on the blues section while Jackson copped the appropriate feel by playing the shells of his drums on the Afro-Cuban section. Blanding was showcased with his big, warm tenor tone on the ballad section of the piece.

The quintet collectively stretched on “Doin’ Our Thing,” which gradually developed from a tinkling piano intro from Nimmer that also featured bassist Henriquez soloing, to a full-out modal swinger that found Blanding wailing on curved soprano and Marsalis responding with some of his most ferocious improvisations of the evening.

The trumpeter also exhibited his remarkable hand plunger work on another blues that had pianist Nimmer channeling his inner Erroll Garner and drummer Jackson briefly switching to washboard percussion.

Another highlight of the set was “The Razor Rim,” which shifted nimbly from 3/4 to 5/4 time while showcasing a powerhouse tenor solo from Blanding.

The Cuban connection at this year’s festival continued at Congress Hall with a superb set by Televana, an international group led by Israeli flutist Itai Kriss and featuring fellow Israelis Dan Aran on drums and Tamir Shmerling on bass, alongside Cuban trumpeter Dennis Hernandez, Cuban pianist Edgar Pantoja and Puerto Rican percussionist Paulo Stagnaro.

The group’s blend of undulating Afro-Cuban rhythms and Middle Eastern scales and melodies was intoxicating, inspiring some in the audience to sway their hips in the aisles.

The spring edition of the Exit Zero Jazz Festival runs from April 22–23, 2017.

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