Jamie Cullum opens Jazz Aspen June Festival
ASPEN – On a video posted on Youtube, Jamie Cullum appears in concert with Burt Bacharach, singing the latter’s 1962 hit, “Make It Easy on Yourself.” Cullum seems in his element – backed by a pops orchestra, his tie loosened, crooning the sentimental refrain, “Breaking up is so very hard to do,” connecting dynamically with the 80-something Bacharach. The performance can make Cullum, a 29-year-old British singer and pianist, seem like a musician yearning for the past, especially in light of the fact that his albums have featured takes on songs by the Gershwins and Jimmy Dorsey, and he has a particular fancy for Cole Porter.But Cullum insists that anyone who has seen him perform wouldn’t call him a throw-back. Certainly those who saw his local debut, at the 2006 Jazz Aspen Snowmass June Festival, and witnessed Cullum jumping on the piano, and moving at high velocity from one instrument to the next, weren’t transported to a past era. And Cullum, who returns to Aspen Thursday to kick off the June Festival, believes audiences would not be reminded of modern groups that revel in faux nostalgia for a time they missed.”There is no retro angle to what I do,” said Cullum, who had just finished cycling across London to get to his North West London home for a rehearsal with his band. “I didn’t go to swing nights dressed in a trilby hat and a zoot suit. I didn’t approach it from that angle.”Cullum came at music from the angle that most 13-year-olds in the early ’90s did: He wanted to be Kurt Cobain. But a few years later, his brother Ben – four years older than Jamie, and a major figure in the younger Cullum’s musical development – turned him on to fusion. In Miles Davis’ landmark 1969 electric album “In a Silent Way” and the ’70s bands of Herbie Hancock, Cullum heard something captivating.”I heard the most amazing musicianship I ever heard,” said Cullum. “That started my interest in jazz, that ’70s dreamy funk. I was in rock bands at the time, and I got fed up with playing songs the same way every time.” When he switched to jazz, he said, “we blew open the music every time we played.”Cullum hasn’t stopped exploding the music. His breakout album, 2003’s “Twentysomething,” which became the best-selling jazz record in U.K. history, juxtaposed “Singin’ in the Rain” with Radiohead’s “High and Dry,” Hendrix with “I Could Have Danced All Night” from “My Fair Lady.” He flavored it all with hip-hop, funk and pop.Cullum said that the way he interprets standards, they might as well be original songs. On his most recent album, 2005’s “Catching Tales,” the music veers from soft jazz to Billy Joel-style piano pop to hip-shaking r&b grooves. Interestingly, Cullum seems to have left two of his formative passions – Nirvana-like grunge and Hancock-esque fusion – behind, at least for that moment.Cullum’s next album, due out later this year, features that familiar mix of old and new. There’s a Stephen Sondheim tune and one by 26-year-old British r&b singer Rhianna, a Porter song that features the Count Basie Orchestra and a bunch Cullum co-wrote with his brother. The album is titled “The Pursuit,” and while Cullum said that title refers to many things, including his love life, it is also a reflection of his musical ambitions.”It goes on quite a journey, like a nightclub rock-jazz jam. All kinds of different beats,” he said. “It uses jazz as a platform to go to a lot of different places.”Among the places Cullum is comfortable heading is to an older school of jazz. His collaborators, in addition to Bacharach, include Clint Eastwood. Cullum and Eastwood worked together on music to two films: “Grace Is Gone,” and “Gran Torino,” which was directed by and starred Eastwood.But the glimpses backward haven’t obscured his vision of the present. Cullum is well-versed on the cutting-edge of jazz. Asked which younger musicians he favors, he mentioned Marco Benevento, the keyboardist of the avant-rock group the Benevento-Russo Duo; the rhythmically aggressive piano trio, the Bad Plus; and Esperanza Spalding, the fast-rising, 24-year-old singer-bassist who makes her local debut in next week’s segment of the June Festival.Cullum is often referred to as the most popular British jazz artist ever, a description he quickly deflects. He sees himself as more of a pop artist. And he thinks any concertgoer who has seen him in action – which usually includes jumping on top of the piano – would agree.”I grew up playing in rock bands. So was before I was playing jazz, I was jumping off of amplifiers,” he said. “I’m a young-spirited person. So it’s going to have the vibe of a younger person’s spirit.”While he’s in pursuit of new directions, Cullum doesn’t see himself becoming a full-on rocker. His days as a Kurt Cobain wannabe are gone. Plus, he’s still got a bit of grunge in him.”Anyone who’s seen me live knows, it’s pretty rocking as it is,” he firstname.lastname@example.org
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