Natalie Cole was the headliner for the opening night of the 59th Newport Jazz Festival tonight at the Newport Casino, but for my money (speaking figuratively—my tickets were free), it was her Uncle Freddy who stole the show.
Freddy Cole, now 81, appeared as a special guest with openers the Bill Charlap Trio (with bassist Peter Washington and drummer Kenny Washington). Cole walked out on stage slightly bent in posture, and his vocals at first seemed insecure. But he soon took flight. He sang some of the less familiar classics from the Great American Songbook with a warm, grainy tone and flawless phrasing, creating intimate, conversational music that made every lyric feel lived in:
“Once in a while…. would you try to give a thought to me.”
. . . .
“If I cried a little bit when first I learned the truth/don’t blame it on my heart/blame it on my it on my youth.”
. . . .
“So when one of us is gone/and one of us is left/to carry on/our memories will see us through.”
At one point, Cole took over from Charlap at the piano in mid-song and continued his set, playing and singing. He finished with a “toe-tapper,” the Billy Eckstine blues “Jelly Jelly,” as raunchy as it needed to be.
Natalie began her set by following in the same vein of American songbook standards — often associated with her father, Nat “King” Cole, one of the greatest of American popular singers. So we got very respectable versions of “The Very Thought of You,” “The Best Is Yet To Come” (for Nat’s friend, “Uncle Frank” Sinatra), “Lush Life,” “Smile.” There was the obligatory video duet with her father of “Unforgettable,” and a warm ovation from the crowd. But next to the plummy sound of her father in his prime, Natalie’s voice sounded tart and thin. Her band helped her lift the tempo (and the mood) with cuts from her current Spanish-language hit album, Natalie Cole en Espanol. But it was when she went back to her 1975 pop hit “This Will Be” that Natalie sounded most convincing, most herself, punching out the high notes with extra loft from her two backup singers.
Cole had an impressive band, filled out with guitar, synth keyboards, acoustic piano, and percussion (from her son, Robbie Yancy). And she was a charming, assured performer. By the end of the night, the air had grown cool. Cole put on a jacket and urged the audience to dance to her pop hits and the Latin grooves. The air felt moist, but overhead above the grounds of the Newport Casino, the sky was mostly clear, and the stars were shining. Later this morning, the Newport Jazz Festival Presented by Natixis Global Asset management will continue at Fort Adams State Park. See you there. And look for the rest of my report in Monday’s Boston Globe.