Whenever I use the word “jazz” in a conversation about music, every other person's eyes glaze over with a complete lack of interest. Someone makes a halfhearted reference to Michael Bublé or Ella Fitzgerald, “Oh yeah, she’s one of the greats,” and then promptly changes the subject.
Ella Fitzgerald is great – a legend, in fact – but jazz has moved on, while the general public’s conception of the genre has not. Classic, romantic swing tunes now find themselves in good company with pop hits set to a jazz groove. Themes of love are joined by songs about “actin’ naughty” on the dance floor, giving this classic genre a contemporary twist.
Jamie Cullum is doing this and more for jazz. He brings a ballistic energy to his own work as well as old hits and distinctly un-jazz pop hits-- all with a British accent that certainly doesn’t hurt his appeal.
Cullum has been making records since 1999 (his latest came out just last year), but has received little acclaim outside the UK. While Michael Bublé has a lock-down on mass-market jazz and Harry Connick, Jr. dominates in movie soundtracks (When Harry Met Sally and Sleepless in Seattle being two notables), Cullum has remained largely on the fringe of American vocal jazz.
As a crossover artist, his music neither fully satisfies the qualities typical of jazz or contemporary pop, but rather fuses the best elements of both these styles into his own unique sound. Sultry and smooth (hear “I Could Have Danced All Night”) or spunky and full of optimism (“I’m All Over It”), Cullum’s voice floats through songs of every mood. He has the melodious quality Bublé fans love, with an added grit and croon all his own.
Given the Cullum twist, jazz standards like “I Get A Kick Out Of You” become reharmonized and remixed versions of their former selves, taking on a new air of mystery.
Cullum gives a similarly refreshing treatment to pop songs – most notably Rihanna’s “Don’t Stop the Music.” In the song’s music video, Cullum plays his piano with such intensity that by the video’s end, the piano has been completely demolished: flashy imagery that is certainly atypical of jazz.
In his live performances, Cullum expertly solos on the piano before moving across the stage to engage more closely with the audience in the next song-- something that not all pianist-singers are able to do with confidence.
Beyond the bravado of his performance, the undeniable sex appeal of his gravelly voice and unique pop-jazz fusion style, Cullum's lyrics also manage to address life's mundane truths with surprising poeticism.
In his song “Twentysomething,” Cullum talks through all the insecurity of being a college graduate riddled with debt, discovering that “the world don’t need scholars as much as I thought,” – a theme that unfortunately most of us will relate to soon enough.
But, still, Cullum triumphs, “I’m a twentysomething and I’ll keep being me.”
Please do, Jamie Cullum.