Bettye LaVette visited Cape May for the first time Friday, and said, from the stage at Cape May’s Convention Hall, that the town was “the cutest little place I’ve ever seen.”
If you are wondering why the great soul singer — who also said, during the course of her set, that she will soon be 70, and that it has been 51 years since her first album — has never been in Cape May before, keep in mind that the town has never presented an event quite like this weekend’s Exit Zero Jazz Festival before. Yes, jazz festivals in Cape May are a long-standing tradition. But in its fourth year, the biannual Exit Zero festival has become something bigger and more eclectic than any jazz festival New Jersey’s southernmost town ever has seen.
There were theater shows not just at Convention Hall, but at a larger theater at Lower Cape May Regional High School, too (attendees were transported back and forth on free shuttle buses, with jazz and blues music playing on the speakers). There were also sets in various bars and restaurants around town.
Throughout the weekend, I was able to hear music in an extremely broad range of genres: a virtual survey of jazz history by the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra, led by Wynton Marsalis; more contemporary jazz by Terri Lyne Carrington and Mark Whitfield; reggae by the Skatalites; country and rockabilly by Gal Holiday and the Honky Tonk Revue; blues and dixieland music by Davina and the Vagabonds; and percussion-heavy, Brazilian-flavored dance music by PhillyBloco.
There was enough music at this three-day festival, in fact, that you could focus on jazz, or hear hardly any jazz at all, depending on your tastes.
The biggest shows, at Lower Cape May Regional High School, were by the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra (who presented two shows, Saturday night), and Carrington.
Marsalis’ 15-piece, virtuoso-packed orchestra played a consistently tasteful, chronologically constructed set of classics by Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Dizzy Gillespie and other jazz giants, capped by an encore of quartet performances featuring trumpeter Marsalis and his bassist, drummer and pianist.
Drummer Carrington, who played at the school Friday night, presented a more contemporary set that included everything from an instrumental deconstruction of The Beatles’ “Michelle” to R&B numbers with guest vocalists Valerie Simpson (who was at her most impressive on her deeply soulful take on “God Bless the Child”) and Jaguar Wright.
My favorite set of the weekend, though, was by LaVette. Performing at the Convention Hall stage to kick off the festival on Friday, she sang with so much raw emotion that you almost felt, at times, uncomfortable looking directly at her: It was like you were intruding on a wrenching, deeply personal moment. She made classic-rock songs such as The Moody Blues’ “Nights in White Satin,” Neil Young’s “Heart of Gold” and The Who’s “Love, Reign O’er Me” her own, and also sang gems by the likes of Lucinda Williams, Joan Armatrading and Fiona Apple.
LaVette’s story is very familiar now: decades of unfair obscurity, capped by an unexpected comeback about a decade ago. But her set still felt like a revelation.
Pat Martino was scheduled to present a set at noon, Saturday, at Convention Hall, with his band, plus two horn players (trumpeter Alex Norris and saxophonist Adam Niewood). The 71-year-old guitarist was suffering from bronchitis, though, and had to cancel.
Whitfield stepped in, and led the band, and the horn players, through a dazzling set. They all made it it look easy even when, on the set-closer “The Way You Look Tonight,” they seemed to be trying the song out for the first time together.
While the festival was certainly nice, there have been many over the past 15 years that were equal if not better.