Jamie Cullum never liked being touted as ‘Sinatra in Sneakers’, let alone as the saviour of British jazz. But in 2003, with his major label debut “Twentysomething” riding high in the global charts, those were the labels thrown at him. With hype stoked by the fact that his sophomore album, 2002’s radio-friendly “Pointless Nostalgic,” got him onto Michael Parkinson’s TV chat show, sparking a million-pound bidding war – the Essex-born pianist and singer became jazz’s pint-sized, tousle-haired poster-boy.
“I knew I wasn’t any sort of saviour,” Cullum, 44, tells Everything Jazz. “I was surrounded by musicians who were masters of harmony and improvisation, and a regular at small gigs by peers who would blow my mind with their playing. I was a songwriter in thrall to the great music of the past and present, who loved to perform, dance and mix everything together with the wild spirit of the young man that I was.”
Rather remarkably, “Twentysomething” bottled that essence. A winning mix of standards, re-imaginings of songs by Jimi Hendrix and Radiohead and originals co-written by Cullum and his older brother Ben, the album stood out for its swinging verve, sardonic smarts and sophisticated arrangements. Produced by Stewart Levine (George Benson, Simply Red) and recorded live on analogue at Mayfair Studios in London, it went gangbusters around the world, racking up eleven platinum, eleven gold and two silver certifications.
It is still the fastest-selling jazz album anywhere, ever.
Now, to celebrate 20 years since its UK release, “Twentysomething” has been re-issued for the first time on vinyl, duly supplemented with non-album tracks, session recordings and a bonus version of “Everlasting Love,” the smash hit single originally recorded for the “Bridget Jones: Edge of Reason” soundtrack. Mainstream? Yeah baby. It was all part of Cullum’s cunning – if unconscious – plan.
“Once I got to the big stages I brought some of jazz’s rightly or wrongly perceived sophistication to people who didn’t have any knowledge of jazz. I felt like I was bringing the mainstream audience into the club,” says Cullum, now a BBC Radio 2-hosting, 10-million-album selling father-of-two, and a recent recipient of an Ivor Novello award for ‘The Age of Anxiety’, a track from his eighth studio recording, 2019’s “Taller.”
“I made a point of shining a light on the scene by mentioning musicians I loved in every interview. But it was still a daily practice not to be overwhelmed by imposter syndrome. I coped because the ride was fun” – this writer watched Cullum make his New York debut at the Algonquin Hotel, variously belting out “Blame It On My Youth,” attacking his instrument with fingers and fists and generally having a showman-style blast – “but also because my central goal was always about improving as a musician and songwriter.”
“Twentysomething” captured a moment. There Cullum was, performing Pharrell William’s “Frontin” on BBC Radio 1’s world famous Live Lounge. There, nailing the high notes on Jeff Buckley’s “Lover, You Should Have Come Over;” and there, channelling “What A Difference a Day Made” through Fender Rhodes and lush effects pedals. He says he still performs self-penned tunes such as “All At Sea” and “Next Year Baby,” whose lyrics tell of resolutions made to be broken: “I hear a songwriter unconstrained by current trends or A&R.”
The album got him where he is today, he says. So it is only right that it gets its flowers.
“I’ve improved a great deal since making “Twentysomething,” but when I listen back I hear a weird sort of alchemy, a combination of guilelessness, wild ambition and pure abandon that is uniquely youthful.
“I never saved anything. Jazz has always flourished, always brought new and brilliant players to the table.”
He pauses and smiles. “I am just so grateful to be part of it.”
Jane Cornwell is an Australian-born, London-based writer on arts, travel and music for publications and platforms in the UK and Australia, including Songlines and Jazzwise. She’s the former jazz critic of the London Evening Standard.
Header image: Jamie Cullum. Photo: McVirn Etienne, courtesy of Blue Note Records.