Sunday, March 14, 2010

Jamie Cullum in Concert: Shhhh! This is called "Jazz!"

(Reflections after seeing the concert by Jamie Cullum and musicians at the Cobb Energy Center north of Atlanta, Friday night, March 13.)

I hear the word "Jazz," and my pulse starts racing immediately. But for a generation or more, "Jazz" has become a word of scorn. Some women I know, older than I am, think of jazz as ugly, formless, annoying; students in my middle school classes use "jazz" the way my generation used "elevator music." So maybe it's good marketing for Jamie Cullum to play down the core of his strength as a performer.

In an interview broadcast on NPR the morning after I saw Jamie Cullum, the young singer / pianist told of playing jazz clubs in London where audiences were sparse and much older than he was, until word of mouth got around about, in his words, "the type of show I do," and he drew in fellow twenty-somethings.

He has since attracted an audience as wide as a continent, and an ocean away from that little jazz club. On the Grand Tier level of the house at his concert in Atlanta Friday night, there were elderly couples, young women who screamed "Whooo!" and "Jamie!" whenever he ripped off an article of clothing, college-aged Asian Indian groupies who posed with their Jamie Cullum posters at intermission, my friend Suzanne who is JC's age, and this fifty-year-old fan of piano jazz and show tunes.

So, does he still have to step up on the piano and jump off? Does he still have to kick the piano stool over and stand pounding chords on the grand? The promotional material extolled his "spontaneity," but some of these "spontaneous" actions seemed to be a requirement. Standing at the top of the piano, his body language and a long pause seemed to ask us, "Do I really have to do this?" I don't fault him for giving his audience what they wanted; I fault the audience for wanting all that when he was offering so much more!

For his show Friday night, he treated us to a wide range of musical styles and textures. He sang ballads alone at the piano, including an original composition "Grand Torino," composed for the movie that strikes me as an instant standard -- moving, thought-provoking, tuneful, well-crafted. He made a point of stepping away from the microphone to rely just on his voice. He sang a new rendition of a song that I've heard him sing on TV and on recording, Cole Porter's "I Get a Kick Out of You," this time arranged simply for his voice and an upright bass. He improvised at the key board while other band members played solo trumpet and guitar.

He worked an intense, slightly abstracted version of Stephen Sondheim's "Nothing's Going to Harm You" into the middle of another song.

His real spontaneity is the kind that qualifies him as a jazz musician, and that's what happens when he and his band surprise each other with twists and sparks in the music. He's in his thirties now, and he doesn't have to jump off pianos any more. Unleash the jazz, and let it work on a new generation or two, or three.

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