Being a jazz musician is a mixed blessing. You get to be cool, but, in return, you are expected to remain underappreciated and known only to a few musical cognoscenti. If you ever get to the point of being famous enough to be recognized outside a smoky jazz club, then you have basically blown it.
Since hitting the big time in 2003 with Twentysomething, an album of covers that made him the biggest selling UK jazz artist of all time, the 26-year-old singer and multi instrumentalist, has been labeled a "Sinatra in Sneakers" and "the David Beckham of Jazz." Comparisons with legendary crooner Frank Sinatra and the current captain of the England football team might not seem so negative, but the connotation of these terms is that Cullum is jazz-lite being packaged for a bunch of kids who know nothing about it, and, in the case of the Beckham comparison, superficial and overrated.
Many jazz aficionados even refuse to label Cullum's music jazz, citing his music's obvious pop sensibilities and the fact that his cute, Hobbit-like good looks and identikit ethnic appeal (he is of mixed British, German Jewish, and Burmese descent) makes him eminently marketable to a non-traditional jazz audience and a variety of demographics, including grandmothers.
His latest album, Catching Tales, which he tours here with four dates (including an extra show) in June, is, in part, a response to some of these criticisms. In an interview with the Scotsman newspaper, Cullum complained about one of the unfairest attacks on him, namely the fact that he made his name as a jazz musician doing cover versions.
"It's part of the jazz tradition to do other people's songs – to play with them and to improvise," he told that newspaper. "It's a funny belief that just because you do other people's songs you can’t write your own. I've been doing it since I was 11 years old but now I am more established I thought it was a good opportunity to showcase my own songs."While Twentysomething had only three self-penned songs, Catching Tales reverses the picture with only three cover versions – including a song by indie rockers the Doves – the rest having been written by Cullum, either individually or with song-writing partners, like brother Ben and the ubiquitous Guy Chambers.
|Not short on confidence.|
The album's first single Get Your Way features Cullum's jazzy tinkling and moody crooning against the characteristic aural backdrops of Dan 'the Automator' Nakamura, one of the musical collaborators behind Gorillaz. While the second single, Mind Trick, sounds more like Stevie Wonder than Thelonious Monk, Miles Davis, or any other of Cullum's early jazz heroes.
But while this new song, already sounds like a classic bit of breezy Motown soul, Cullum's song-writing talent has not yet abandoned jazz. His ability to play with classical jazz styles and devices, and use lyric phrases that already sound familiar, creates original songs that feel like clever reworkings of classics. Good examples are the brightly cynical Nothing I Do and 7 Days to Change Your Life, which flexes between morose and exuberant.
"I set out to make something that would challenge me and something that I didn't feel was already out there for me to buy," he says of the album. "I didn't hear an album exactly like the one I had in my head – so I made it."Cullum doesn't shy away from the 'easy-listening' tag, but if you are expecting a night of sedate jazz sophistication at one of his concerts, you are probably in for a surprise. He is known for his electrifying performances, in which he leaps around his piano and hammers the keys like a demented jazz-singing Hobbit.
International Herald Tribune Asahi Shimbun
4th May, 2006