(Cheltenham Town Hall, part of Cheltenham Jazz Festival, Sunday May 2nd 2010)
To judge by the audience’s mood-shift from torpor to exhilaration at Sunday night’s Cheltenham Jazz Festival concert, Jamie Cullum’s elemental energy has the capacity to be a transforming force.
There was a distinct lack of reaction to the five minute bell, most seats in the hall stayed empty. A few souls then did drift into the hall in response to the one minute announcement. Those that did seemed uncertain, and several around me were having trouble finding the right seats.
But roughly 100 minutes later, every single person in a packed Cheltenham Town Hall appeared to have located not just their mojo, but had also found an inner pogo-stick which they probably never knew they possessed. The Town Hall’s floorboards, built to withstand the daring dance steps of society balls in 1903, have probably never received a pounding quite like this.
From the first, level-checking tremolando of “Just one of those things,” Cullum was on fire, whipping up the band, in charge, running the show. The second number,”Get Your Way” involved a leap off the top end of the Steinway. But this tune also showed quite how versatile and adaptable Cullum’s current band is. It changes from a piano-bass-drums-plus-two-horns jazz unit into a singer-lead-guitar-bass guitar-synth-drums rock band. And then back again at will.
Jamie Cullum’s four band members, whom he dubs the “bearded choirboys,” because they are all products of an English choral education, typify the completely adaptable modern British musician. Brad Webb ‘s drum skills were honed by the discipline of the National Youth Jazz Orchestra, but he has come a long way since then. Rory Simmonds can roar out melodies on both trumpet and lead guitar. Tom Richards switches from tenor sax to keyboards or percussion. And Chris Hill was constantly switching back and forth from his bass guitar to a borrowed double bass.
This gig was something of a homecoming, and a family affair. He grew up nearby in the village of Hullavington in Wiltshire, about half an hour by car to the south of Cheltenham. His mother was in Sunday night’s audience, and brother Ben Cullum joined the band for “These Are the Days.”
The return to Cheltenham also seemed a reminder of how life keeps moves on. For most of the past few months Cullum has been on tour, most recently in Australia, the return delayed by volcanic ash. Revisiting an old haunt in the West Country, it was as if his feet had, for once, touched the ground.
It must have indeed been an intriguing dilemma for the newly thirty-something Cullum whether he should still be including “Twenty Something” in the programme. Or possibly to change the lyrics. First he did ditch it from the programme. But now it’s back, with its ironic opening quote from Chopin’s funeral march.
Time does indeed march on. In the months since Cullum turned thirty last August, things have been happening fast. He’s now the presenter of a very popular radio show in a prime slot on Radio 2. This weekend he had the new role as Guest Director of the Cheltenham Jazz Festival. He will have a Prom on August 26th. And he’s got married.
The Sunday night choice at Cheltenham was this gig, or the free improv, or John Scofield. I got some very curious looks from hard-core jazz folk for choosing this one. But I have no regrets. I see Cullum’s energy and drive as a completely positive force in British jazz. Look at the sheer range and diversity of material which he includes on the Radio 2 show which he presents. The core audience for jazz is often very old or very young. Cullum may or may not be capturing some of the middle ground, but, with his drive and performance energy, he is certainly expanding it.
He is also giving it a bounce and a shake – as the Cheltenham Town Hall floor could feel on Sunday night.