Jamie Cullum: An Interlude in D.C.


“Who’s playing tonight?” asked a passerby, eyes widening as he scanned the line that stretched two city blocks before winding down an alley. Across the way, a mural of Duke Ellington gazed on the scene. That juxtaposition must have been as poignant for the evening’s performer as it was for the concertgoers waiting to enter the Lincoln Theatre: the jazz singer and pianist Jamie Cullum was about to play in the historic space where the Duke himself once performed.

After seeing Jamie Cullum at the 9:30 Club last summer, I wrote a post filled with modifiers such as “effervescent” and “scintillating.” On Friday night, I thought: This venue has been graced by the jazz greats – Ellington, Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald. Will Cullum command this stage in the same way he took the 9:30 Club by storm?

For anyone less passionate about jazz, that might be a tall order – but the English musician packs a fierce one-two punch of verve and versatility. He’s introduced listeners to jazz not only through his electrifying performances but also through his weekly BBC Radio 2 show, featuring interviews with and live performances by the artists he admires. I used up so many superlatives writing about his 9:30 Club show that I’ll just leave it at this: Whether he’s interpreting a Nat King Cole classic, reconceptualizing Radiohead, or delivering rambunctious, original jazz-pop, Cullum radiates pure joy. It can be hard to engage an audience at a seated venue, but by the end of that night, Cullum had everyone at the Lincoln on their feet, jumping and fast-clapping, singing the harmonies, all smiles and bright eyes.

Jamie7Jamie Cullum is touring on his latest record, Interlude (Blue Note Records). “To get where you want to go, sometimes you have to go back to where it all started,” Cullum explained. He describes Interlude as “a perfect title for the album ’cause this is genuinely my first proper jazz record.” Where 2013’s Momentum (Island Records) showcased his crossover jazz-pop songwriting, Interlude reaches back to early jazz standards: Cullum’s smoldering, slinky, brassy title track was originally performed by Dizzy Gillespie and Frank Paparelli (Night In Tunisia).

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Medeski Scofield Martin & Wood: “Juice”

An evening with Medeski Scofield Martin & Wood is an evening of jazz infused with bossas and boogaloos, an evening of quicksilver sonic play. The joy of listening to these guys can be eclipsed only by the joy of watching them watch each other. With the slightest nod and smile, they shift to a new idea and lock into it together, seamlessly, as if they were a single consciousness rather than four individual musicians.
9:30 Club (Washington DC)
MSMW at the 9:30 Club (Washington DC)

Take guitar, stand-up bass, piano, and drums, and put them in front of peerless musicians with wide open musical sensibilities and backgrounds in jazz, blues, folk, soul, and rock. Then take a straight-laced, wonky Washington crowd and remind them to leave the suits and smartphones at home. What you get is an evening of genre-crossing music and an audience nodding along, grinning, and dancing to the funky grooves and improvisational playfulness of Medeski Scofield Martin & Wood.

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A storm blowing from Paradise: A night with the Airborne Toxic Event

anna2 blogA Klee painting named Angelus Novus shows an angel looking as though he is about to move away from something he is fixedly contemplating. His eyes are staring, his mouth is open, his wings are spread. This is how one pictures the angel of history. His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such violence that the angel can no longer close them. The storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress. –Walter Benjamin, “On the Concept of History”stage

A spectral bird, its wings outspread, imparts a white glow to the dim stage. The sculptural eagle — a spirit animal of sorts for The Airborne Toxic Event — recalls Klee’s angel, and the music of The Airborne Toxic Event evokes the struggle with the chaos of modern life described by the historian Walter Benjamin. But unlike Benjamin’s angel of history, confronted with the devastation of the past but propelled inexorably into the future, the music of The Airborne Toxic Event encourages us to linger, to rebuild these stunning ruins and piece together the fragments of our compartmentalized lives.

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Hamilton Leithauser: “Black Hours”

For Walkmen fans, don’t expect a replica of the breakneck pace and howl of "The Rat." But do expect the signature combination of grit and vulnerability that Leithauser has perfected over the years. His lithe voice can convey scorn and aggression in a raw-throated delivery, but also softens to allow the pathos to seep through the cracks in the bravado. In "Black Hours," Leithauser slows it down, smoothing his voice into a dark, hypnotic croon that draws us in while warning us to keep our distance.

The Walkmen may be retired, but its lead singer definitely (and thankfully) is not.

BqlhwzEIcAEZJCU When I left the safety of suburbia for the mean streets of New York, the Walkmen’s “We’ve Been Had” was my anthem. The song (from the band’s 2002 debut album) sounds off-kilter, which was how I felt. The piano intro — jangly and slightly out-of-tune, like a vintage upright — is diced up by percussion. The melody stumbles drunkenly up and down the scale. The lyrics are ironic, disaffected: I’m a modern guy, I don’t care much for the go-go or the retro imageWe’ve been had, you say it’s over, somehow it got easy to laugh out loud. The elements feel jarring when they first collide, but somehow everything coalesces in a way that is just right, just like the cacophony of the city.

The Walkmen

The Walkmen produced some of the best indie rock of the 2000s. In late 2013, after six albums, the D.C. born, New York-bred band went on “extreme hiatus.”

Move the clock forward to “Black Hours.”

In his solo debut, Walkmen frontman Hamilton Leithauser explores a range of influences, fusing the cool moodiness of ’50s-era Sinatra with flavors of jazz, folk rock, and indie pop. If that strikes you as discordant, just listen to Leithauser work his musical alchemy. For Walkmen fans, don’t expect a replica of the breakneck pace and howl of “The Rat.” But do expect the signature combination of grit and vulnerability that Leithauser has perfected over the years. His lithe voice can convey scorn and aggression in a raw-throated delivery, but also softens to allow the pathos to seep through the cracks in the bravado. In “Black Hours,” Leithauser slows it down, smoothing his voice into a dark, hypnotic croon that draws us in while warning us to keep our distance.

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South Rail: Music for wandering souls

“After playing Chopin, I feel as if I had been weeping over sins that I had never committed, and mourning over tragedies that were not my own.”

Oscar Wilde’s reflections on music came to mind as I was practicing a Chopin prelude earlier today. What he describes is part of what I love about music — its power to communicate emotions that burst through the confines of mere words, to transmute sorrow into something beautiful to be shared.

South Rail’s music has that power. When I put their self-titled debut EP on, I’m swept away by Lara Supan’s rich, dusky voice, which is captivating both alone and in harmony with Jay Byrd, who plays guitar. South Rail’s sound is part folk, part alt-country — think Neil Young meets Wilco meets Eva Cassidy. I saw South Rail over the weekend at Gypsy Sally’s in Georgetown, and I’m excited both for the future of the band and the new live music venue.

South Rail blog1

South Rail typically performs as a trio with Ben Potok on drums, but they were joined by bassist Wes Christenson for the evening. Watching the quartet banter during sound check, it’s clear that these guys love music and love performing together (they met when responding to a Craigslist ad for a band that they didn’t join).

Up-tempo songs like “Everybody Knows It” made me wonder why nobody was dancing (my excuse — knee surgery). But the song that really caught my ear is “Wandering Soul,” which Lara introduced as a song about being on the road and reflecting on the life that you’re missing back at home. The song opens with keyboard and unfolds slowly and deliberately, with Lara’s soulful voice interspersed with plaintive guitar solos. Combined with gentle percussion, “Wandering Soul” evokes the image of a weary traveler, the color of his clothes made indistinguishable by dust, placing one boot in front of the other, following the railroad tracks back home.

This is a song about long winding roads and finding home in a face and an embrace. “I spend my days dreaming of what’s yet to come” — but even in times when we don’t know where to go, a good song can remind us that others share this seemingly lonely road.

South Rail blog2

South Rail is about to start recording some new music, and I’m looking forward to seeing what’s next for this band. In the meantime, if you live in the DC area, sign up for their mailing list so you can catch one of their local shows.