Friday, March 12, 2010

Happily Disrespectful: Jamie Cullum at Massey Hall (March 9/10)

You have to have either supreme confidence in your abilities or sport quite a large set to let somebody as amazing as Imelda May and her tight, tight band open for you. Jamie Cullum, the young British jazz pianist and singer did that just this past Tuesday at Massey Hall in one of those concerts that will always be in my memory bank.

Imelda May is an Irish rockabilly singer who's relatively unknown over here, but after her high-energy opening act, she made 2000 new fans. With a voice that is a mix of Dusty Springfield, Janis Joplin and Amy Winehouse and a bit of Loretta Lynn, May got Massey Hall humming and did what any opening act should do, warm us up and leave us wanting more. As my wife said after May's brilliant 40-minute set "what the hell was that?" And she meant it as the highest compliment. We were here to see Cullum and we were given an amazing gift for showing up on time. At the mid-point of her set, May told us that the up-coming Cullum would "blow your minds". She was right. He had little choice after her performance.

As the opening act, you've got about, oh 20 seconds to capture and hold the audience, and May did just that. As the headliner, you've got the luxury of the slow build, so that is wisely what Cullum did in his 2-hour show. Cullum is both a talented jazz interpreter and songwriter in his own right. Throughout the evening he mixed his versions of classics, such as the quiet show starter, Cole Porter's "Just One of Those Things," with terrific originals such as "Wheels" and "You and Me Are Gone." One of the pleasures of Cullum is he is happily disrespectful of not only the arrangement of the songs, but also the lyrics. Some jazz gray-beards (or fossils) are horrified if the 'sacred texts', particularly lyrics, are mucked with, but that is what the best jazz players have always done to help this music remain vital. Now, I'm not suggesting that Cullum is pushing the envelope too far (he is not changing the vernacular like the Beboppers did), but he is making it matter to a new generation. He even took a turgid Rhianna song from a year or two ago, "Don't Stop the Music," gave it a jazz/pop make-over and made it mean something for both jazz and current music fans.

His performance was friendly, energetic and completely delightful, but the most charming part of his set was the sense of awe he clearly felt for Massey Hall (it was his first time there). After his slightly tentative (nervous?) first song, he took to the mic and said "this place is amazingly beautiful and it means so much to so many musicians, myself included. This is the very stage where in 1954 (he was off by a year, it was 1953) Dizzie Gillespie, Charlie Parker, Bud Powell, Charles Mingus and Max Roach played. We as a band are excited, but totally terrified; to trod the same stage as Charlie Parker is like walking on clouds." He then scuffed the stage with his sneaker as if he was trying to dig back to 1953. He said this not as idle stage patter, he was clearly moved. The connection for him seemed so real, so strong that, after an earlier "how are you, Toronto?" it became for the rest of night variations on "are you having a good time, Massey Hall?". This is when the magic hit. He had to, just HAD TO pay his respects to the Hall.

His other covers were revelatory: using his piano as a beat box (playing everything but the keyboard until the very end) he thumped, slapped and tapped out a rhythm as he sang an a capella version of George Gershwin's "It Ain't Necessarily So"; Porter's "I Get A Kick Out of You" with just Cullum and his great bassist, Chris Hill, alone on the stage; taking the whole band into the audience to play a 10-minute version of "Cry Me A River," made famous by Ella Fitzgerald; taking Tony Bennett's "If I Ruled the World" and twisting it from the hopeful, happy song from Bennett's interpretation and making it "something funereal" - it was hair-raisingly good.

This was an event to remember. No, not up there with the May 13, 1953 concert (very little could), but he without question left his mark on Massey. Final fun fact? We sat beside Jamie Cullum's wife, Sophie Dahl and knew it, but let her be. We too had to show our respect.

See Imelda May singing "Johnny Got A Boom Boom" (the song she closed her set with) and another song "Falling In Love With You Again," here

And check out Jamie Cullum here singing "Cry Me A River" with his band in the audience at Massey Hall (yes, it's already on Youtube). This is only a portion of the song, but it gives you a taste of it.

And someone else picked it up almost exactly where the previous one left off (listen for Cullum saying at the 2:38 mark "give it up for this amazing Hall" and then at the very end "thank you very much, Massey Hall")

and an excerpt from the Massey concert of his 'beat box' version of "It Ain't Necessarily So"

and the video for "Don't Stop the Music," here

-- David Churchill is a film critic and author. He is putting the finishing touches on his first novel, The Empire of Death.

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