Jamie Cullum Rocked CMW
With just a piano and a microphone, Cullum performed at Canadian Music Week.
The pint-sized English jazz musician, coming off of a wildly received, near sold-out concert at Massey Hall, engaged in a keynote question and answer session at the Royal York Hotel during the week-long music industry hoedown. With four albums under his belt and numerous awards and citations, Cullum is Britain's top-selling jazz artist ever. With his Beatle-esque haircut, translucent skin and natty suit, Cullum came off every inch the 21st century musician, liberally throwing in references, both verbal and musical, to hip-hop, pop, metal and classic jazz sounds.
Cullum comes by his musical pedigree honestly his paternal grandmother was a Jewish refugee from Prussia who performed in Berlin nightclubs, and he has referred to her in interviews as his “cultural icon.” As a child, Cullum voraciously consumed every ounce of musical inspiration he could find, living on a diet of Metallica and Slayer (he told the assembled crowd at the Royal York that he’d “fast-forward to the guitar solos”) and later Beastie Boys and the Red Hot Chili Peppers. Raised in the English countryside, he would bicycle to the annual Glastonbury festival, soaking up a variety of styles and sounds that would later be manifest in his own unique work (later showcased itself at Glastonbury in 2004 and 2009).
Though known primarily as a jazz musician, Cullum’s sound is much wider than a simple regurgitation of standards. He showed off his uncanny ability to mix sounds to the CMW crowd, doing an organic mash-up of the old classic “Singin in the Rain” (made famous by Gene Kelly) with Rihanna’s monster pop hit “Umbrella.” The result was dreamy and contemplative, a wonderful showcase of Cullum’s deft ear for sounds and rhythms.
This predilection for rhythm made itself known when lugubrious host Ralph Simon questioned Cullum about his use of a stompbox, something the English singer/songwriter was inspired to start using after seeing Spearhead frontman Michael Franti use one in a live show. Essentially just a wooden box with a microphone inside of it, Cullum frequently used it to bash out a beat, creating a kind of bouncy rhythmic interplay between melodic and percussive elements. Cullum also isn’t shy about tapping on, in, and around the piano itself, using his bare hands to slap and smack the instrument back to its percussive roots. “Me and the piano are always in an argument,” he confessed.
Cullum also discussed working with actor/director Clint Eastwood for the Oscar-nominated 2008 film Gran Torino. Having penned the film’s title song (and performed a beautifully melodic version to boot), he noted that, not having done film work before, working with Eastwood was akin to “giving caviar to a baby.” In truth, Cullum’s been enjoying “caviar” for a long time – the list of musical luminaries he’s worked with is long and impressive, and includes legendary producer Quincy Jones, Jeff Beck and Kylie Minogue. Cullum even talked about his early touring with troubled soul singer Amy Winehouse, who opened for him many years ago. Four albums and numerous international tours later, his musical roads are ever-expanding, and he spoke of wanting to complete the work he’d begun with Neptunes producer Pharrell at some point in the future.
For now, however, Cullum is touring material from his latest release The Pursuit. Along with a cheeky re-working of Cole Porter’s "Just One Of Those Things," the album features what he considers his creative manifesto: a song called “Mixtape” that name-checks his influences (John Coltrane, De La Soul, and Nine Inch Nails among them). He closed his CMW showcase with a version that saw him confidently move between R&B, ragtime, balladry, hip-hop and bright pop sounds, his hands easily running up and down the keys, his voice alternately smooth and snarling. Ending with a crashing rumble into the piano’s lower registers, Cullum’s teenage metal side came roaring out, to exuberant, thrilling effect. Canadian Music Week might have its share of dour-faced, long-haired guitar-god-types, but Cullum, it seems, can rock with the best of them.