Covent Garden‘s street entertainers will have to move their flaming unicycles to one side over the next couple of weeks — the professionals are taking over. Superbusking, a name seemingly designed to spark inferiority complexes in jugglers, will see musicians including Gabriella Cilmi, Athlete and Jamie Cullum taking over the piazza to play impromptu gigs in aid of homelessness charity Crisis.
Back to basics: Jamie Cullum has been busking
Further bands and showtimes will only be announced at late notice on the Covent Garden website but I can reveal that Wednesday 9 December will be the day to do your Christmas shopping if you fancy hearing some smooth jazz-pop by a man who looks about two decades younger than his 30 years.
Twentysomething, the album that in 2003 made Jamie Cullum the UK’s biggest selling jazz artist ever, now seems a long way off. But even further in the past are his days as a proper busker, strumming guitar on street corners in Paris, Florence, Barcelona and Moscow.
“A good busker needs skin like a rhinoceros,” he tells me. “One person might be interested for every thousand that walk past you. Oasis songs always seem to go down well. You’ll earn eight pence extra if you play Wonderwall.”
Cullum’s ability on the piano eventually allowed him to graduate from the street — he paid his way through an English literature degree at Reading University by tinkling the ivories in Berkshire hotel bars and it was this early experience that gave him a depth of ability to earn respect in the jazz world before he was ever on television.
Jazz purists may bemoan his enthusiasm for pop but they can’t deny that the boy can really play.
His genre-straddling has seen him tagged as a crossover artist (“that word makes me wince,” he says, “it usually applies to terrible music”) but it’s easy to see how he can confuse his listeners. His latest album, The Pursuit, released by Decca earlier this month, is all over the shop, including covers of Cole Porter, Stephen Sondheim and R&B vixen Rihanna, as well as originals that veer from Keane-style piano-led rock to electronic dance music.
“I’m trying to move things on,” he says. “I wanted to embrace the breadth of influences I’ve got and try to do them all justice. It’s boring just to do what you’ve done before.”
The Pursuit has yet to produce a hit, though the Louis Prima-esque swing of You and Me are Gone or his blissful piano ballad Wheels sound more than capable of mass appeal. He’s still considered a safe musician, the go-to guy for a prime time collaboration. In the past month he’s played the Royal British Legion Festival of Remembrance and a Carpenters special on ITV1, performing Rainy Days and Mondays as a duet with Kimberley Walsh from Girls Aloud. But then he’ll surprise by revealing that he only got into the duo through the 1994 compilation If I Were a Carpenter, a collection of cool covers by indie bands such as Sonic Youth.
“I’m a music geek. I take a perverse pleasure in talking about [obscure Danish electronica producer] Trentemøller to Good Housekeeping magazine.”
What about those who think this dextrous jazzer is holding back from what he can really do musicially? “I don’t think I consciously hold back. I do appreciate music that’s pretty melodic, so that’s often a starting point.”
And it’s the best tunes that will make the most money when he passes the hat for Crisis in Covent Garden. But I wouldn’t put it past this consummate crowd pleaser to try a bit of juggling, too.