British singer Jamie Cullum the latest to explore jazz standards
As Jamie Cullum veers back to jazz, he's part of a wider trend of artists exploring the genre's material in new ways
Jamie Cullum doesn't want anybody to get the wrong idea about his new album, Interlude.
A British singer and piano player who emerged in the early 2000s as a precocious, messy-haired jazz star, Cullum spent the next decade inching ever closer to pop. He wrote original songs and covered Don't Stop the Music by Rihanna, and his previous record, 2013's beat-heavy Momentum, was produced by hip-hop producer Dan the Automator, known for his work with Gorillaz.
So it's easy to view Interlude, a handsome, mostly acoustic collection of standards such as Good Morning Heartache and Make Someone Happy, as a kind of retrenchment. Not so fast.
"I actually worried about putting this one out, because I didn't want to give the impression that I'd got fed up with my process or I felt like it wasn't working," Cullum, 35, said recently. "But there was something I was hungering for that I didn't get from Momentum. That's the jazz musician in me that I'll never escape."
Cullum isn't the only one finding nourishment in an old model. This month, Jose James, another young singer with one foot in jazz and the other outside it, will release Yesterday I Had the Blues, a gorgeously stripped-down set of tunes written by or closely associated with Billie Holiday.
Timed to commemorate the 100th anniversary of Holiday's birth, Yesterday I Had the Blues follows James' 2014 album, While You Were Sleeping, which dabbled in outsized guitars and dance grooves.
Cullum and James join several other performers tending the jazz-vocal tradition, including Gregory Porter, whose Liquid Spirit won a Grammy Award last year, and the similarly acclaimed Cecile McLorin Salvant. Taken together, these artists' work suggests something encouraging about the durability - and also the adaptability - of the classic songbook.
"I think we're seeing a renewed interest in good songs," says Don Was, president of Blue Note Records, home to Cullum, James and Porter. "And those older songs, they're really singer-friendly. That's why they keep coming back."
And "that's why you've got Bob Dylan singing them now," he adds with a laugh, referring to the just-released Shadows in the Night, on which Dylan improbably tackles songs once sung by Frank Sinatra.
Standards never really go out of style, of course; that's why they're called standards. And, as Was points out, their appeal attracts vocalists from all musical backgrounds - see Lady Gaga, who picked up a Grammy for her low-aiming album of duets with Tony Bennett.
But Cullum and his ilk aren't just borrowing the music's prestige. As much as they're drawing sustenance from it, they're finding room to renovate as well.
"As jazz musicians, we kind of have to mess around with this stuff," says Salvant, 25. "[Thelonius] Monk would play standards, but he'd totally take control of them. A melody that sounded so sweet and cute would end up sounding harsher and edgier in his hands."
The daughter of a French mother and a Haitian father, Salvant grew up in Miami studying classical voice; after high school, she moved to France, where she discovered jazz.
There's a theatrical quality to her singing on WomanChild, her Grammy-nominated 2013 album, that sets it apart. You can hear her inhabiting the characters in the songs, thinking about their actions and motivations.
And the selections reveal an academic streak. Along with familiar tunes such as What a Little Moonlight Can Do and I Didn't Know What Time It Was, Salvant sings curios such as You Bring Out the Savage in Me, an eyebrow-raising song from the early 1930s about hearing "primitive love cries" in "the tropic heat".
"I play for a lot of audiences that know jazz well," she says. "Sometimes I like to choose songs they don't know."
On Yesterday I Had the Blues, James brings his soulful rasp and behind-the-beat phrasing to nine of Holiday's signature songs, including Lover Man and Strange Fruit, which opens with James overdubbing his voice into a ghostly choir. (Cassandra Wilson, the reliably adventurous jazz veteran, will release her Holiday tribute in April.) And then there's Cullum, who moves through his album's title track - made famous when Sarah Vaughan sang lyrics to the Dizzy Gillespie tune later known as A Night in Tunisia - with a sense of modern mischief. Like Salvant, Cullum also seems interested in expanding our notion of what a standard is.
Beyond the established jazz fare, Interlude has renditions of Randy Newman's Losing You, Ray Charles' Don't You Know and The Seer's Tower by indie-folk songwriter Sufjan Stevens. He and Porter join forces, as well, for a rollicking Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood.
Part of what enables these singers to take the liberties they do is the charisma they emit, a magnetic pull that gives them something of a pop-star vibe even as they look away from the sound of pop. During a gig recently at Largo in Los Angeles, for instance, Cullum earned a standing ovation with his opening number. And it's that audience connection that makes him a good fit for an exponentially larger venue like the Hollywood Bowl, where he'll play on August 5, says Laura Connelly, the Bowl's director of presentations.
"Jamie has this firecracker enthusiasm for what he's singing. That's somewhat rare in jazz, which can be a little serious," she says.
Cullum says he's experienced moments of unease regarding his celebrity, which in Britain approaches pop-star level. He's married to English writer and model Sophie Dahl, and he hosts a popular jazz-leaning BBC radio show every week. "It's hard to know sometimes where that stuff should sit," he says of his offstage pursuits. "People might think I'm winding down as a musician."
Ultimately, though, his high profile only brings more attention to the classic songs he wants to expose, he says. And in that regard Cullum tips his hat to the singer who's probably done more than anyone else today to keep the standards alive, even if he's not widely embraced by the jazz realm that Interlude seeks to revisit.
"I think Michael Buble has done the world a lot of favours in putting this music back on the map," Cullum says of the crooner beloved by millions for his easy-listening approach. "That's been good for the repertoire. I'm sure that's the kind of thing jazz musicians aren't supposed to say. But I don't agree."
Los Angeles Times