Jazz lost its youth over half a century ago. Rock ‘n’ roll stole its vigor and its dance steps, leaving jazz with just intellectuals, arty types and those over the hill.
For all its creative zest in the decades since, jazz has yet to regain a sustained connection to music of the young.
Jamie Cullum alone can’t change that, but he does give jazz a vim the genre should get down on its knees and thank him for. While no kid himself – he’s 30 and “The Pursuit” is his fourth CD – this relatively seasoned disk still sounds like it came from the same brat who dared bridge the jazz-pop divide on his winning “Twentysomething” back in 2004.
That breakthrough disk created a sensation in Cullum’s native U.K. Its snazzy take on songs by everyone from Hendrix and Radiohead to Oscar Levant and Lerner and Loewe sold in the multimillions.
On Cullum’s last CD, “Catching Tales,” he co-wrote most of the songs with his brother Ben. This time he puts back in more covers, swiped from the likes of Rihanna, Cole Porter and Sondheim. As usual, Cullum does a gut renovation on all of them, warping their arrangements and melodies while bending their lyrics to his cheeky persona.
Cullum said he believes this CD presents him in a more mature light. It even features his first earnest love song: “Love Ain’t Gonna Let You Down.” (Cullum got married, to model/writer Sophie Dahl, between the last CD and the new one.) Thank God that didn’t change anything significant. He’s still playing the scamp, a guy who thrives on songs that keep love at a flip distance.
He’s perfect for Porter’s ironic ode to a fling, “Just One of Those Things.” As on many cuts here, Cullum plays the piano like he’s doing a guest shot on Elton John’s early live disk, “11-17-70.” His fleet and muscular fingers give jazz the snap of pop.
Cullum’s voice has an appropriately boyish sex appeal. It’s both athletic and erotic, slipping between the notes with sly sensuality. Better, there’s wit to his delivery, striking the teasing tone of an undying flirt. Never, however, does his humor obscure his technique.
Cullum proves as expert with a swing number as he is with the sweep of Sondheim’s “Not While I’m Around,” or a house rave-up like “Music Is Through.” But it’s his take on the Rihanna hit “Don’t Stop the Music” that steals the show. He trashes the dance beat, but concentrates so hard on the slowed-down melody that his take finds an intense groove of its own.
For all Cullum’s élan, never does he seem pretentious. That’s because, unlike many stars, Cullum isn’t using jazz to make himself look sophisticated. Just the opposite principle is in play: He’s using his own feisty character to prove how down to earth, and yes, young jazz still can be.