Jamie Cullum on Radio 2: Bridging the gap to jazz

It’s 18.59 on Tuesday evening and I’m rushing to tidy my room in anticipation of my best friend, who, in one hour’s time, will be sipping vodka and orange squash (classic Theology student…) while I indulge in a Baileys and ice. But the real reason for my haste is that Jamie Cullum’s BBC Radio 2 show is about to start and I don’t want to miss a minute of it.

Jamie is of course famous for his crossover jazz hits, and has previously graced the Radio 2 studio with live performances such as his cover of The Beatles’ ‘Come Together’. But, he now contributes to the radio station by gracing listeners with a fresh, contemporary stance on the world of jazz while the main focus of his life is currently his daughter Lyra who turns one next month.

Jazz is not always easy-listening music, however Jamie’s show succeeds in attracting audiences who are new to the genre as well as jazz fanatics. He has recently showcased Grammy-nominated jazz vocalist Gregory Porter’s enchanting tunes. ‘Illusion’ is a particularly touching song of his, filled with melancholic memories and ending with a soft exhale of breath, which Porter has reflected on saying, “Love makes us all crazy”.

Another champion of the show is New York based Gretchen Parlato, whose stretchy delicate tones come through strongly in ‘All That I Can Say’, which features on her 2011 album ‘The Lost and Found’. Although the recorded session she did for a show earlier this year was a slight disappointment, her style is very easy to listen to and even jazz haters should check out ‘Still’, a guitar-based duet with Alan Hampton, whose voice makes me want to melt…

Robert Glasper is one of the legends to listen out for on the show, with his hip-hop influenced piano wonders. As I sit typing I can’t help but bop to the chilled beat. Glasper has in fact collaborated with Gretchen Parlato on her cover of Simply Red’s ‘Holding Back The Years’. Gretchen’s version is a must-hear – it is vastly different from the original. I consider this to be a very good thing indeed.

Contemporary artists like these gently ease newcomers into jazz. But what makes Jamie’s show even better is the inclusion of earlier blues, swing and other sub-genres, which induce nostalgia in the listeners each week. The most recent show was a Sir Paul McCartney Special. So, appropriately, Jamie began the hour with Ray Charles’ cover of ‘Eleanor Rigby’ from 1984. The honesty of the recording, slightly muffled and extremely soulful, takes us back in time. Other older jazz pieces, sure to get you feeling perkier about life, that Jamie has previously incorporated, include ‘The Lighthouse in the Sky’ by Nat King Cole. The fullness of the backing choir’s vocals and carefree clapping along with Nat King Cole’s smooth baritone voice make this song extremely feel good.

The instrumentals played on the show might be slightly harder to get into for jazz newcomers, but after a while I would hope that tunes like ‘Tom Thumb’ by Wayne Shorter and ‘Spinner’ by the Portico Quartet provoke at least a head-bop in most listeners. A personal favourite instrumental that Jamie aired during his last session is Brad Mehldau’s piano solo version of Lennon and McCartney’s ‘Blackbird’. It is a glorious accompaniment to a glass of your favourite beverage whilst winding down after a long day. By airing covers of well-known songs, Jamie allows jazz beginners to gain a feel for jazz scales and notes, while enjoying the familiarity of a melody or phrase that they have heard before.

Interviews are a key feature of the show and Jamie has been lucky enough to chat with the likes of Dave Brubeck, Gregory Porter, Sir Paul McCartney, and Clint Eastwood. They aim to understand how jazz and other genres have shaped the music and lives of the interviewees. Occasionally our ears are treated to live performances – with help from the Radio 2 studio’s resident piano, which was donated by Elton John. In November last year we heard a live duet of ‘Baby It’s Cold Outside’ from Mr Cullum himself and guest Eliza Doolittle. I might be slightly biased, having almost sprinted to touch his sweat-covered T-shirt when he performed at Kew the Music last summer, but you will surely agree that his singing voice is divine. Sessions pre-recorded at the Maida Vale Studios (which were originally a roller skating venue!) also factor into the show. Past sessions have been from sax-sensation Soweto Kinch, Parisian singer-songwriter Camille (check out ‘Mars Is No Fun’), and classically trained jazz pianist and composer Zoe Rahman. Jamie also advertises upcoming jazz gigs to look out for around the country, which keeps us up to date with the live jazz scene.

Although I’ve mentioned Beatles-related music a lot so far, I must admit that I didn’t actually enjoy listening to McCartney’s version of ‘It’s only a paper moon’ from his new jazz-infused album ‘Kisses on the Bottom’. But I feel that 55-year-old ladies who are members of his international fan club will love it. Although every single track aired is not to all listeners’ tastes, the show is sure to introduce more than enough exciting tunes to make it worth tuning into. And often these tracks will be ones that, without Jamie’s help, we won’t have heard before.

Jamie Cullum’s aim to “try to get people to listen to jazz” is definitely achieved, and I hope that having read this far you will give it a go next Tuesday evening when he will be featuring Empirical, one of his favourite jazz bands. To listen to a playlist of songs Jamie has aired on his show check out The Bubble Music’s brand new YouTube channel here: http://www.youtube.com/user/TheBubbleMusicDurham

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