Archive | July, 2011

Pogo-ing away at a night of jazz

25 Jul

JBEIL: “My hair,” Jamie Cullum announced to his Byblos International Festival  audience Tuesday night, “is not normally this curly.”

Lebanon’s summertime coastal temperature – the cause of the English  celebrity’s excitable hair – reached its 2011 high this week but the heat and  humidity didn’t restrain the 31-year-old jazz artist. Cullum barely stayed  seated during his two-hour performance, uncommon among pianists.

His energy did not wane as the concert wore on and, along the way, his  audience was treated to some gymnastics that are above and beyond the call of  duty for jazz artists – including leaping from the top of his grand piano.

Exuberant as his performance was, it was clear he was not trying to  compensate for any want of vocal or piano-playing ability.

Cullum came to fame in 2003 with the release of his first U.K. album. By the  end of the year he was Britain’s biggest selling jazz artist of all time. In  2007 he won Ronnie Scott’s Jazz Award for Best British Male.

His popularity stems not just from his crooning abilities, and certainly not  from his height – he stands at 5’4” – but from his great charisma, something he  demonstrated at Byblos.

The show began with “Photograph,” whose lyrics refer pointedly to the  performer’s height – “I remember laughing ’cos to kiss me / She had to sit down  on her chair.”

Cullum’s accompanying pantomime – a tiptoed stretch upward – brought some  added value to the self-deprecating humor.

The artist continued with “Get Your Way,” another song from his “Catching  Tales” album, and proceeded to introduce himself to the audience, pretending to  have memorized (and forgotten) a Lebanese translation of “We are so proud to be  here in Byblos to play for you tonight.”

His efforts to speak Arabic delighted the audience, who were fast on their  feet with applause.

“It is wonderful here, one of the friendliest, nicest places I have ever been  to,” announced Cullum. “We wish we could stay. Lebanon is an incredible place  with an amazing spirit.”

The pianist’s concerts are generally improvised affairs, with no set playlist  agreed upon beforehand.

Adding to the buzzing atmosphere, Cullum frequently rushed to his piano to  strike a solo.

His band members were equally relaxed. Tom Richards, playing saxophone,  percussion and keyboard, showed his expertise during his several solo  improvisations.

Rory Simmons shone on trumpet and guitars, and bassist (electric and  acoustic) Chris Hill shared the solo spotlight, as did drummer and backing  vocalist Brad Webb.

Cullum’s performance power was such that, when he introduced himself, the  audience couldn’t help but chant his name back, clapping and stomping their feet  in accompaniment.

Though a songwriter, Cullum has gained enormous popularity from his cover  versions of other well-known artists. He’s performed numbers by jazz legends  such as Cole Porter but he’s also credited with mainstream-ing jazz, with  jazzed-up covers of tunes by Beyonce and Rihanna.

He demonstrated his improvisational skills Tuesday, performing two Beyonce  chart-toppers – “Single Ladies” and “Crazy in Love” – then passing seamlessly  into the Beatles’ “Come Together.”

“Byblos,” Cullum yelled at one point. “Come together!”

The pianist followed with “All at Sea,” a slow, sensual song he wrote at 21  while working on a cruise ship.

The crowd’s favourite song of the evening seemed to be Cullum’s cover of  Radiohead’s “High and Dry.” His own composition, “Twenty Something,” was also  greeted with screams of delight.

Early on in the concert, about half the audience were out of their seats and  dancing. Many more joined in as he moved into a mellifluous cover of Rihanna’s “Please Don’t Stop the Music.” The tune turned into a sing-along, with the crowd  chanting the lyrics back.

“Please dance,” cried Cullum. “It’s what we’re here for!”

Cullum’s spirit of improvisation continued to reverberate as he turned to a  mix of “Cry Me a River.” The artist mingled several versions of the song, which  has been adapted over the decades. Beginning with Julie London’s original,  Cullum brought in Justin Timberlake’s more-recent take on the song, only to make  the song entirely his own.

“It’s not about Britney,” he announced as he gestured to Richards’ sax. “It’s  about Tom Richards!”

Cullum drew the audience into the performance as much as he did his band  members. Toward the end of the show, he divided the eager crowd into three  sections, giving them each a tune to repeat. “It’s going to be beautiful,” he  said with an enormous grin.

As the diverse concert wore on, the artist covered Kanye West’s “Gold  Digger,” stunning and charming the audience with his own beat-box  accompaniment.

It’s rare to have an entire audience pogo-ing at a jazz concert – and Cullum  managed to get each member of his crowd jumping in unison for the concert  finale.

Cullum said that he hopes to be back in Lebanon soon. If audience  satisfaction and multiple standing ovations are anything to go by, his return is  imminent.

The Byblos International Festival continues Saturday with a show by Thirty  Seconds to Mars. For more information call 09-542-020.

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