I don’t need a vision, I’m just waiting on collisions of the brain and the heart / I’m patient for decisions and some stormy revelations I can claim from the start.
— Jamie Cullum, “Edge of Something”
“Dance,” said the Sheep Man. “Yougottadance. Aslongasthemusicplays. . . . Yougottauseallyougot. Weknowyou’re tired, tiredandscared. Happenstoeveryone, okay? Justdon’tletyourfeetstop.”
— Haruki Murakami, “Dance Dance Dance”
In mechanical physics, momentum is the product of the mass and velocity of an object. At a concert, momentum is determined by setlist composition, stage presence, and the mental focus needed to do full justice to the songs. When the elements coalesce, a live performance propels the crowd somewhere sublime. The energy transforms a multitude of concert-goers into a single creature with eyes trained on the stage and heartbeat keeping time with drumbeat — hearing, feeling, breathing, being.
Momentum is also the title of Jamie Cullum’s new album. The English piano player and singer-songwriter sounds bolder than ever, shifting from the jazz-dominated sound of earlier albums to more pop-driven, free-wheeling, heterogeneous creations. Cullum characterizes his latest album as reflective of a crossover period. Though he’s a little bit older, I connect with his sense of liminality, of teetering on the threshold separating childish fantasies and adult responsibilities. That sense pervades Momentum, both in its genre-crossing exploration and in its lyrics about making peace with fickle hopes and dreams, collisions of the brain and the heart, and being a star in limbo.
When Cullum bounded onto the stage at the 9:30 Club last night to deafening cheers, his energy was palpable and his joy infectious. With an impish grin and a toss of his artfully-mussed hair, Cullum launched into an evening of effervescent stylings on piano, employing unconventional techniques like palm-muting and striking out a rhythm on the outer rim. In moments of sheer elation, Cullum clambered onto the Yamaha grand and belted out a few lines before leaping off to grab drumsticks and accompany his bandmates in the percussion section. It was a feast for the senses.
Cullum’s work spans jazz standards like “Singin’ in the Rain,” reconceptualizations of art-rock (Radiohead’s “High and Dry”) and dance-pop (Rihanna’s “Don’t Stop the Music”), and original songs both melancholy (“Sad, Sad World”) and jaunty (“When I Get Famous”).
You must listen — and really, see him live — to appreciate fully Cullum’s immense talent. Think pop augmented with jazz ornamentation and accented with swing rhythms, and songs that range from contemplative ballads to big-band productions to hip-hoppy jazz. There’s grit and retro-glam, bebop and beatbox. He sounds something like Cole Porter and Thelonius Monk meets Jeff Buckley and Thom Yorke, with a guest appearance by Roots Manuva. When Cullum sings and plays, the fusion of these varied styles produces music that subsume both playfulness and passion. (If you can’t see him live, you can get some idea of the experience thanks to Yamaha’s sophisticated sensor technology, which — as Cullum explained to the crowd at the 9:30 Club — captured and recorded every key movement that night.)
The physicality of Cullum’s performance is breathtaking — literally so. In an adorably comic-dramatic moment between songs, he slumped over the keys, chest heaving.
This off-the-charts kinetic energy compelled Cullum, over the course of the night, to shed his suit jacket and wipe a hand across his sweaty brow, complaining that the D.C. heat had turned his hair into an expanding mess of curls (“it’s humid here, and my mom’s Indian” he improvised in song, eliciting peals of laughter). (I’m pretty sure he said Indian, though his mom is Burmese — maybe he was afraid people don’t know where Burma is.)
One standout on the new album is “When I Get Famous” — a big, echoey song with brash horns that give way to an organ solo, sprinkled with a flavor of ominous “gypsy” jazz. Cullum launches into the song without hesitation, spitting out lyrics with a youthful bravado (Sit back and watch my scrawny frame / Invade your feelings), a cool snarl (Well you were just too damn aloof / Wearing your Morrissey t-shirt).
“When I Get Famous” is the revenge song of a short kid who makes it big through music — a kindred spirit of Ben Folds Five’s “One Angry Dwarf and 200 Solemn Faces.” But in introducing the song, Cullum joked that we are wrong to assume it’s about him, because he was actually a “stud in school, like Brad Pitt mixed with Ryan Gosling.”
Cullum is a songsmith in his own right, but I also love his interpretations of other artists’ material. Covers can be revelatory. They are a sort of musical palimpsest, one artist constructing walls of sound framing spaces of silence, all on the foundations of another artist’s song.
Take Cullum’s spin on “Pure Imagination.” (I’m thinking specifically of the album version.) It starts with crisp-but-barely-there percussion and a sparse piano and bass overlay. If you’re a fan of James Blake, you will recognize Cullum’s nod here to his fellow Brit’s minimalist, syncopated electronic music (take a listen to “I Am Sold,” especially starting around 0:55). (Blake’s sound might surprise you at first, but give him a fair try — he’s so good. The tantalizing melodic murmurs and haunting trip-hop loops send shivers down my spine.)
To be clear, this isn’t Cullum imitating Blake. Rather, Cullum builds a delicately lovely Blake-esque atmosphere in his rendition of “Pure Imagination.” The pauses framed by spare percussion evoke a sense of airiness as Cullum eases into the song. Verse by verse, he finds a slow crescendo to the refrain: If you want to view paradise, simply look around and view it. His sumptuous vocals are adorned with piano flourishes and the jeweled chime of the xylophone, before he pulls the song back down to a gentle hush. Worlds of imagination are as much for adults as for kids, and this sophisticated rendition evokes a dreamlike, euphoric state.
Cullum holds nothing back when he performs. At the end of the night, my friend remarked, “It makes you wonder what he does after a show — it seems he would need to go collapse somewhere — how could he have anything left?” I don’t have any answers, but the air that night was positively electric with anticipation and exhilaration. Perhaps that is fuel enough for the consummate artist and performer who is Jamie Cullum.
I opened with a Murakami quotation, and I should explain why. Murakami loves jazz — he refers to music in his novels, and before becoming a writer, he ran a jazz bar in Tokyo (coincidentally, I am writing this from the Tokyo airport — apologies for any typos or formatting weirdness). His novels are about the chance encounters in life that keep us going, about dealing with the accumulation of regret as we grow older, about keeping our feet moving to the music. And Jamie Cullum’s incandescent performance conveyed the same message — getting unstuck, moving forward, gathering momentum.
Catch Jamie Cullum on his tour, and purchase Momentum here.
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