Jamie Cullum, Twentysomething


For some followers of jazz, Jamie Cullum and his smooth-singing ilk are the true saviours of this stubbornly unkempt music's future. For others, these youngish collectors of Frank Sinatra, Peggy Lee and Nat King Cole records have moved into a world that just flirts with jazz, one in which an album should ideally contain a hit single and some drivetime-friendly tracks, where instrumental improvising is pushed into a back seat, where dress designers and stylists get mentioned in album credits. It is a galaxy away from the one in which spontaneous musicians radically reinterpret their material afresh night after night, and where nurturing the right conditions for the unexpected is the priority. Pat Metheny, a brilliant musician who understands only too well that if jazz means anything it means surprises, has been pulled for years between commercial settings that require him to repeat himself, and small-audience ones that let him be.

Just the same, Wiltshire's engaging young singer/pianist Jamie Cullum has been rapturously and inaccurately greeted as the British jazz success story of the past year, and this album is the first product of his headline-grabbing £1m deal with Universal records. It's an elegantly-produced 14-track summary of Cullum's enthusiastically open listening habits, from American Songbook classics (there are two Cole Porters among six standards), to unselfconsciously autobiographical originals from himself and his brother Ben, and high-quality classic-pop material from Jimi Hendrix and Jeff Buckley. Just to put the jazzers straight, there's comparatively little instrumental playing, what solos there are are bright and focused but fleeting, and even the leader's effervescent and fast-developing piano playing gets pretty short shrift. So far, so expected. The point of the disc is the songs, and in both the choice of the material and the range of interpretation, Jamie Cullum's ability to learn fast and listen hard has undoubtedly made this set a leap forward from his self-generated Pointless Nostalgic debut last year.

Cullum's virtues are a remarkable relaxation (which makes music-making, even in a sophisticated studio recording, sound like fun to him), a youthful bounce that makes his work engagingly airy and light, and a hipness of timing that marks him out from many of his competitors on this crowded stage. Twentysomething is also very shrewdly produced (by George Benson and BB King producer Stewart Levine) to keep the more luxurious of additional instruments (strings, flutes, horn ensembles) in a subtly supportive role that always leaves Cullum's forthright, unadorned and already characterful voice way out in front.

The balance is immediately evident on the opening, What A Difference A Day Makes. It is also there in the hinted Fender Rhodes, swelling organ sound and eventually George Benson-like unison scat with the band on the Stevie Wonder and Van Morrison-like These Are the Days - a Ben Cullum original. Cullum's pledge to infuse jazz with rock and soul's urgency surfaces on a funky, guitar-wailing Singin' in the Rain, but it is less successful on I Could Have Danced All Night, with its Headhunters-like bass lick. But his disarmingly innocent musings on his own young life click pretty well on the title track, over a hypnotically walking piano vamp.

Although Cullum can gracefully swing all night, it's often his startlingly insightful ballad singing that stays in the mind after a show. He makes a coolly accomplished job of Bob Dorough's excellent But for Now, and a genuinely moving one of Heyman and Levant's Blame It on my Youth, as he has increasingly done in live performance lately. There may be no better time in Cullum's life for him to handle this tough assignment. His eager, splashy piano style is reined in for much of the disc, but it does break out in I Get a Kick Out of You, building from short, clipped phrases and rattling repeated notes over softly dabbing chords to an onrush of impatiently percussive left-hand figures.

All At Sea is an engagingly folksy original about loneliness, written when Cullum was on his own playing the ocean liners, but Jimi Hendrix's The Wind Cries Mary is a gutsy and powerful performance that might well be the standout track of the album.

Don't buy this disc to hear Jamie Cullum save jazz - it'll still be there even if he never plays another note of it. But Twentysomething does represent a more personal take on the songwriter's art - from both the originating and the interpretative angle - than you'll hear from many of the young time-travellers currently riding the soundwaves with the dial set to 1948.


John Fordham

The GuardianTramp

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