Jazz singers bring new life to old standards

Jazz singers bring new life to old standards
Jamie Cullum (Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)

Jamie Cullum doesn't want anybody to get the wrong idea about his new album, "Interlude."

A British singer and piano player who emerged in the early 2000s as a precocious, messy-haired jazz star, Cullum spent the next decade inching ever closer to pop. He wrote original songs and covered "Don't Stop the Music" by Rihanna, and his previous record, 2013's beat-heavy "Momentum," was produced by Dan the Automator, known for his work with Gorillaz.


So it's easy to view "Interlude," a handsome, mostly acoustic collection of standards like "Good Morning Heartache" and "Make Someone Happy," as a kind of retrenchment.

Not so fast.

"I actually worried about putting this one out, because I didn't want to give the impression that I'd got fed up with my process or I felt like it wasn't working," Cullum, 35, said recently. "But there was something I was hungering for that I didn't get from 'Momentum.' That's the jazz musician in me that I'll never escape."

Cullum isn't the only one finding nourishment in an old model. Next month, José James, another young singer with one foot in jazz and another outside it, will release "Yesterday I Had the Blues," a gorgeously stripped-down set of tunes written by or closely associated with the late Billie Holiday.

Timed to commemorate the 100th anniversary of Holiday's birth, "Yesterday I Had the Blues" follows James' 2014 album, "While You Were Sleeping," which dabbled in outsized guitars and dance grooves.

Cullum and James join several other performers tending the jazz-vocal tradition, including Gregory Porter, whose "Liquid Spirit" won a Grammy Award last year, and the similarly acclaimed Cécile McLorin Salvant, who's scheduled to perform Friday night at Walt Disney Concert Hall.

Taken together, these artists' work suggests something encouraging about the durability — and also the adaptability — of the classic songbook.

"I think we're seeing a renewed interest in good songs," said Don Was, president of Blue Note Records, home to Cullum, James and Porter. "And those older songs, they're really singer-friendly. That's why they keep coming back.

"That's why you've got Bob Dylan singing them now," he added with a laugh, referring to the just-released "Shadows in the Night," on which Dylan improbably tackles songs once sung by Frank Sinatra.

Standards never really go out of style, of course; that's why they're called standards. And, as Was points out, their appeal attracts vocalists from all musical backgrounds (and levels of ambition) — see Lady Gaga, who picked up a Grammy on Sunday for her low-aiming album of duets with Tony Bennett.

But Cullum and his ilk aren't just borrowing the music's prestige. As much as they're drawing sustenance from it, they're finding room to renovate as well.

"As jazz musicians, we kind of have to mess around with this stuff," said Salvant, 25. "Monk would play standards, but he'd totally take control of them. A melody that sounded so sweet and cute would end up sounding harsher and edgier in his hands. He'd almost disassociate it with the original version."

The daughter of a French mother and a Haitian father, Salvant grew up in Miami studying classical voice; after high school, she moved to France, where she discovered jazz.

There's a theatrical quality to her singing on "WomanChild," her Grammy-nominated 2013 album, that sets it apart from work by other vocalists. You can hear her inhabiting the characters in the songs, thinking about their actions and motivations.


And the selections reveal an academic streak. Along with familiar tunes like "What a Little Moonlight Can Do" and "I Didn't Know What Time It Was," Salvant sings curios such as "You Bring Out the Savage in Me," an eyebrow-raising song from the early '30s about hearing "primitive love cries" in "the tropic heat."

"I play for a lot of audiences that know jazz well," she said. "Sometimes I like to choose songs they don't know."

On "Yesterday I Had the Blues," James brings his soulful rasp and behind-the-beat phrasing to nine of Holiday's signature songs, including "Lover Man" and "Strange Fruit," which opens with James overdubbing his voice into a ghostly choir. (Cassandra Wilson, the reliably adventurous jazz veteran, will release her own Holiday tribute in April.)

And then there's Cullum, who moves through his album's title track — made famous when Sarah Vaughan sang lyrics to the Dizzy Gillespie tune later known as "A Night in Tunisia" — with a sense of modern mischief.

Like Salvant, Cullum also seems interested in expanding our notion of what a standard is. Beyond the established jazz fare, "Interlude" has renditions of Randy Newman's "Losing You," Ray Charles' "Don't You Know" and "The Seer's Tower" by the indie-folk songwriter Sufjan Stevens. He and Porter join forces, as well, for a rollicking "Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood."

Part of what enables these singers to take the liberties they do is the charisma they emit, a magnetic pull that gives each of them something of a pop-star vibe even as they look away from the sound of pop.

During a gig last month at L.A.'s Largo, for instance, Cullum earned a standing ovation with his opening number. And it's that audience connection that makes him a good fit for an exponentially larger venue like the Hollywood Bowl, where he'll play Aug. 5, said Laura Connelly, the Bowl's director of presentations.

"Jamie has this firecracker enthusiasm for what he's singing," Connelly said. "That's somewhat rare in jazz, which can be a little serious."

Over breakfast the morning after his Largo show, Cullum — who recently opened a string of arena concerts for Billy Joel — said he's experienced moments of unease regarding his celebrity, which at home in Britain approaches actual-pop-star level. He's married to the English writer and model Sophie Dahl, and he hosts a popular jazz-leaning BBC radio show every week.

"It's hard to know sometimes where that stuff should sit," he said of his offstage pursuits. "People might think I'm winding down as a musician."

Ultimately, though, his high profile only brings more attention to the classic songs he wants to expose, he said. And in that regard Cullum tipped his hat to the singer who's probably done more than anyone else today to keep the standards alive, even if he's not widely embraced by the jazz realm that "Interlude" seeks to revisit.

"I think Michael Bublé has done the world a lot of favors in putting this music back on the map," Cullum said of the ring-a-ding crooner beloved by millions for his easy-listening approach. "That's been good for the repertoire.

"I'm sure that's the kind of thing jazz musicians aren't supposed to say. But I don't agree."



Cécile McLorin Salvant, with Terri Lyne Carrington's Mosaic Project

Where: Walt Disney Concert Hall, 111 S Grand Ave., L.A.

When: Fri., 8 p.m.

Cost: $52.50-$132.50