Talking Jazz

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The Independent Culture

We're going to be hearing a lot about Jamie Cullum. You may already have heard a little about him: the young singer-pianist who signed a £1m deal with Universal and won the Rising Star category at this year's BBC Radio jazz awards is, if you believe the more breathless comments, "the new face of British jazz" and someone who looks like he has gone missing from a boy band. A gap has been spotted: there is no male equivalent of Norah Jones and Diana Krall, and Cullum is expected to fill the slot.

Having listened to the forthcoming masterpiece, Twentysomething, I can say that there are some very catchy tracks on the album, tracks that I could easily imagine hearing on, say, the Capital FM breakfast show in between "Flirty at 9.30" and the new Christina Aguilera single. But the sooner all this nonsense about Cullum being the saviour of British jazz stops, the better. On the basis of the new album he is no more a "jazz singer" than Neil Diamond was when he appeared in the movie of the same name. What will be the first single, "All At Sea", is a beautiful tune, but one that bears as much relation to jazz as Mind Your Language did to politically correct ideas of harmonious race relations. It may be compared with a David Gray number, just as what I imagine could well be the second single, "These Are The Days", makes one think of Van Morrison.

It is in Cullum's own interest that he ceases to be labelled a jazz musician, for if that continues to be the case then he will be judged on jazz criteria, and on those he will be found wanting. He is a competent pianist, no more, one whose mastery of noodling has not yet extended to the fully conceptualised solo, and as a jazz singer he is simply not fit to be mentioned in the same breath as Kurt Elling or Bobby McFerrin, lacking their capacity for invention, awesome technique and intelligence of approach. The suggestion that those who buy his album will be turned on to real jazz is laughable. Twentysomething would prepare the palate for Parker and Coltrane no better than a can of Strongbow would pave the way for a St Emilion.

Instead, he should take a leaf out of Georgie Fame's book. Fame has just begun a residency at Ronnie Scott's. Everyone in jazz loves Georgie Fame. They like the fact that an artist with durable mainstream hits wants to mix a few jazz numbers in his act and that his love and respect for the music is palpably genuine. But they never mistake him for a true jazz musician, and, wisely, he doesn't seem to make that claim for himself. He is jazz-influenced, a subtle nuance but an important one.

When Cullum's album comes out in October, watch out for a load of old cobblers about how he has made jazz cool again, and watch sales of real jazz albums remain exactly the same.