Young crooners woo listeners of all ages
LONDON — He looks like the latest boy-band pinup: fresh-faced, leather jacket, black T-shirt, hair carefully unkempt. There are fawning fans, support acts, US tours, and hot-cake record sales.
But there the similarity ends. Jamie Cullum may be, at just 24, the latest young act to wow British audiences, but in this case it's not about three-chord pop and lousy dance routines.
Known as "Sinatra in sneakers," Cullum is at the vanguard of a curious new group of young crooners who have dusted down the old jazz songbooks and sung their way into charts and hearts on both sides of the Atlantic.
There are US singer-pianist Peter Cincotti and Vancouver vocalist Michael Bublé, not to mention the 16-year-old John Stevens - or "Teen Martin" as he became known on the recent finals of "American Idol." There was British superstar Robbie Williams doing his Sinatra tribute album, as well as numerous British acts who preceded Cullum - such as Ian Shaw.
And it's not just the guys, either. Norah Jones led the way with her 2002 debut "Come Away With Me," while US vocalist Nellie McKay and Briton Clare Teal both recently celebrated major record label deals.
It's a rapid revival that has taken some by surprise. At a recent London gig, Cullum appeared bashful, almost apologetic about his own meteoric rise (a million records sold and regular TV slots).
"It's all a bit weird really," he told the audience. "It's incredible and a total honor. We're just hanging out really, playing some songs."
So why the sudden interest in cocktail-bar music? Wasn't jazz supposed to be dead, at least to the mass market? And wasn't the jazz standard, that wistful expression of love and loss, the exclusive preserve of the lived-in, aging crooner?
Music industry insiders say the revival is no coincidence, that the emergence of the "young crooner" is no spontaneous musical happening, but a cunning improvisation by record-industry bosses who recognized a distinct demographic shift among the CD-buying public. With sales decimated by Internet downloading - particularly at the youth end of the spectrum - the industry realized that older consumers were buying more CDs than kids. What was needed was a safe, easily digestible product to sell to the 40-somethings who had no interest in boy bands or rap.
"The record industry is marketing heavily toward people of a certain vintage," says Neil McCormick, a London-based author on rock music. "Over here they call him '50-quid bloke' - a middle-aged guy who will go into a record store and spend around 50 pounds on CDs."
Easy-listening jazz was an obvious product to tout. After all, Rod Stewart's most recent album of standards such as "The Way You Look Tonight" and "It Had to Be You" resulted in the singer's best record sales in eons. Albums by crooners such as Tony Bennett and k.d. Lang have become hip.
The genre already had a certain ear-recognition given its growing profile as an advertising medium. Ivor Widdison, chairman of the Jazz Services promotion company in Britain, notes that television ads in recent years have used 1940s and '50s standards to convey classic quality.
"A lot of commercials have used Cole Porter, Gershwin, and quite a lot of it is jazz-tinged, so people's ears have been opened up," he says.
Indeed they have. One refrain from fans of the genre is that it's a refreshing change from tuneless wonders.
"It's just the right time for this sort of stuff," says Clive Moore, a 65-year-old fan of Cullum and Michael Bublé. "People are fed up with rap, rap, rap all the time, at least I know I am."
But the jazz world is of two minds about the sudden commercial success of these acts. Some mock Cullum for drumming on his piano almost as much as actually playing it. "There are many piano players in his [Cullum's] age group who play with much more competence," says Simon Purcell, professor of jazz piano and improvisation at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama near London. "He is the jazz version of a boy band."
In his defense, Cullum admits he is uncomfortable with his rapid elevation from intimate piano bars and cruise ships to gigs at St. James Palace for the Queen's birthday party. He insists what he does is jazz and argues there is a world of difference between the manufacture of a pop star and his own success.
"There is a huge difference," he says, "between musicians who spend 10 years working on their craft and bypassing the media spotlight and writing great songs, to those who go from hairbrush in front of the bedroom mirror to TV studio to Wembley stadium."
Cullum and Cincotti have spent several boy-band lifetimes honing their art, putting something of themselves into old tunes to bring them to life. And it's not all jazz standards. Peter Cincotti takes on the Beatles, and Cullum does everything from Radiohead to Jeff Buckley. Michael Bublé, meanwhile, incorporates Stevie Wonder and the Bee Gees into his repertoire.
"It's hugely appealing coffee table music," says Mr. McCormick, adding that the beauty of covering well-known tunes, ancient and modern, is that they are so much more accessible to the lazy mass market.
"It's a sign of changing times for the record industry," he adds. "It's harder and harder for original material to get heard in the mainstream, and that's because of the key factors of profit and loss. But mainly loss."