Newport Jazz Festival: Jamie Cullum opens Newport Fest with a bang

Journal Pop Music Writer

NEWPORT – “Seats are for jazz concerts,” Jamie Cullum shouted Friday night at the International Tennis Hall of Fame as he encouraged the audience estimated at 2,300 to get up and crowd toward the stage. Well, this was the opening night of the CareFusion Newport Jazz Festival, so one could be forgiven for thinking it was a jazz concert.

Judging from the opener, a smooth, swinging “Just One of Those Things,” you’d certainly think so. The 30-year-old pianist-singer took a fleet piano solo and sang in the style of young revivalists such as Michael Buble.

Then again, there was that cover of Rihanna’s “Don’t Stop the Music,” and the one of Radiohead’s “High and Dry” (with an arrhythmic bit of “Singin’ In the Rain” with dissonant piano echoes), and the one of Jimi Hendrix’s “And the Wind Cried Mary” – all done in piano-jazz style, but with a rock spirit.

And the bouncy piano pop of “Mixtape,” during which Cullum got the crowd to bounce like it was a Good Charlotte show, sounded and felt like a manifesto (“My love can paint a million tones/ From Nine Nich Nails to Louis Armstrong”).

Cullum last performed at Newport in 2004 and was an even more energetic performer Friday, standing on and leaping from the piano, doing his patented cross-stage running leap during his breakout hit “Twentysomething,” and taking the band into the middle of the audience for a semi-unplugged “Caravan.”

But for all the dazzle, the emotional center of the show was “Do You Know What It Means to Miss New Orleans?” and “I Get Along Without You Very Well,” both done solo, in classic pounding and crooning (respectively) style, and preceded by the story of hearing Harry Connick Jr. and realizing that “you can be a rock star and a jazz musician.”

By the time Cullum had finished a hooting, howling, scat-singing version of “I Get A Kick Out of You” accompanied only by bassist Chris Hill, his ability to inhabit standards and Top-40 hits and twist them each to suit his purposes made the old feel as new as the new had felt old.

Grace Kelly, the 18-year-old Boston-based sax-and vocal phenom, and her quintet opened the show with a sweet reworking of “Summertine,” and made some real fireworks on the original “101” (helped by the powerful trumpet of Jason Palmer). Her vocals were strong too, but the nuances of her sax tone during “Round Midnight” (also accompanied only by her bassist, Evan Gregor) were gorgeous. She also joined Cullum for “These Are the Days,” during which she got to show a roadhouse-style grit on the double-time section.

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