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Jamie Cullum

Solo Live at Cheltenham Jazz Festival 2011

Photograph: Marilyn Kingwill for the Guardian

When you’ve been off the road, holed up at home looking after a new baby, it’s a tall call to head out and perform without your band at a major event in the west of England, even when you have been closely involved in the artist selection and organisation of the festival. AND when it’s in Cheltenham, an English town / city justifiably renowned for stiff and unresponsive audiences – many a comedian will close eyes and sigh for 40 seconds at the mere mention of the place…

By the way, we watch this show at the London I-max, one of 75 cinemas throughout Europe carrying a live-as-it-happens relay with a giant screen and superb sound. This means that Cullum cannot hear the quality of the capital’s audience singing to choruses under his direction, something of a pity as it’s better that the lacklustre efforts of the staid Cheltenham concertgoers.

Springing onto the stage comes Jamie in his customary jeans, black jacket and matching tie ( Paul Smith of course, the picture quality is that good ) over white shirt and suspiciously new-looking tan shoes. He looks anxious to play and somewhat unnerved by having to have a bunch of chord and lyric sheets which constitute ‘the setlist’, as he never works with one. He promises us some familiar and unfamiliar selections, a bit of a ragbag but structured to be payable on his grand piano and supplementary loopers which he uses to layer percussive sound and vocals via a hand mike. No guitar tonight. Cullum made plenty of time to talk to the audience, explaining the origins of songs (one written the day before !), writer crediting, reasons for choices but also a jokey fake technical fault is slipped in as he sings soundlessly to approximate a connection fault and alarm the cinema audiences. His overall manner is not far from an enthusiastic teacher running a class when he splits the crowd into sections and constructs a minor chord variation note by note into a cluster.

He plays with great energy and more than enough jazz improvisatory flair (most notably on a spikey and almost harsh version of Jimi’s ‘Wind Cries Mary’) whilst his voice has its customary blending of smooth croon and soulful rasp, best heard on the Radiohead number ‘High & Dry’. Strangely, the last live version of that heard by your scribe was by US country band Lady Antebellum…. what makes Cullum an outstanding artist is simply his musical skill and awareness of his roots ( nearly all American and World, I hear not a trace of English heritage in anything he does) plus a sense of adventure and fun. He knows he is a quality act but as he knocks around with jazzers he is equally accepted by the likes of Pharrell Williams. The Rhianna hit ‘Don’t Stop the Music’ is played with attack and clear  presentation of the lyric plus an adlib verbal passage or two given that Miles Davis, Stanley Turrentine and this guitar player’s favourites Pat Martino and Grant Green were never snobby about reinventing pop songs of their day, Jamie is ‘traditional’ in that sense.  It would be a shame if these days Cullum just had to pump out smooth versions of ‘Honeysuckle Rose’ or ‘Starlight’ though one fears that the Parkinsonesque audience at the venue would have been more comfortable with the same. Even if Cullum suspected that was the case, he didn’t come back for the second set with a different approach at all, the rest of the show being just as vigorous and  experimental chordally as the first tranche.

As for the selections, there is a godawful and unreleased end-of-the-world song (inspired by Madonna, as he discloses) that he performs for the first and hopefully last time. Servicable tune but atrocious wordplay. A very engaging ‘All Over It Now’ is familiar to the fans and crisply put over. An unusual standard or two are included eg ‘Don’t Wait To Love’ which clearly connects with Jamie’s psyche given its thoughtful reading. In style and pace it’s similar to “Little Things Mean A Lot’.   His own ‘All At Sea’ sounds fresh as a daisy. A few soft female sighs can be heard during ‘Everybody’s Lonely’. More than a touch of the early Jack Jones in Cullum’s delivery here…

Almost apologising for the obligatory ballad, he digs out the tender ‘But For Now’ for an airing. He rescues Candi Staton’s ‘ You Got The Love’ from the tuneless screeching inflicted upon it by Florence & Her Machine ( in any given rendition, Florence has more keys than a jailer’s belt ), imbuing the piece with a quasi-gospel zip. A Ray Charles flavoured “Hard Times’ rolls into a new song ‘Need More Pain’, as punchy and bluesy as anything played tonight. He ought to visit the Bobby Bland songbook and try ‘It’s Not the Spotlight’ !

By later in the set he has ditched the shirt and tie and is down to t-shirt and jeans, more and more at ease but still it seems running on adrenalin.

By the encore, being his film theme song ‘Gran Torino’, Cullum looks somewhat fatigued   but also relieved he has steered himself through the evening in one piece. You cannot doubt his bravery, you cannot doubt his commitment to music. But his number one skill as displayed on this night is as a communicator.

Pete Sargeant

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