Jamie Cullum – The Pianoman at Christmas(Island. CD Review by Ciaran Carter)
This is Jamie Cullum’s 10th Studio release. Comprising ten original songs, it was begun before the first Covid-19 lockdown and completed as soon as Cullum & Co. could return to the studio.
Following a year full of sadness and uncertainty, Cullum’s wish is that “the care, attention to detail and sheer joy that we put into this record will bring a little magic this Christmas.” It certainly delivers the magic.
The album was co-produced by Cullum’s musical director, Tom Richards, one of the UK’s best arrangers who has worked with Quincy Jones, Metropole Orkest and Jules Buckley, and by Greg Wells, a Grammy-winning producer who has worked with Adele and on the soundtrack to The Greatest Showman.
When one thinks of Christmas albums, one thinks of a big band with luscious string writing. Cullum puts us in this sound world from track one, It’s Christmas, with pianist Ross Stanley’s classy fills adding sophistication here and on the following track, Beautiful, Altogether.
As well as producing and arranging, Richards contributes saxophone on some tracks, including the raucous, swinging Hang Your Lights, where he plays a call and response with the band. The ensemble improvisation here not only emphasises the raucousness, but also shows how much fun the musicians were having.
The Jolly Fat Man, with its impressive shout chorus, harks back to arrangements by Thad Jones and Mel Lewis, as does Christmas Never Gets Old.
Cullum’s vocals are consistently outstanding. He sings with ease, even when the orchestration gets dense, floating above the luscious strings on the title track to spellbinding effect. His lyric writing also is exceptional throughout.
Turn on the Lights is the most pop-inspired track and portrays the excitement of Christmas. The orchestration is cleverly written, so the song builds naturally, and the key change, rather than being a mere device, really lifts it. A Christmas No 1 contender with a genuinely exhilarating final chorus, it also features top session trumpeter Tom Rees-Roberts on piccolo trumpet, a welcome surprise.
The sound quality is excellent. You can hear every instrument. Richards’ arranging, with the help of Callum Au (on How Do You Fly and Turn on the Lights) and Evan Jolly (on It’s Christmas), reminds me of Vince Mendoza and Maria Schneider. There are outstanding solo features by trombonist Nichol Thomson, on So Many Santas, and cellist Ian Burdge, on How Do You Fly, both renowned session players who add real depth.
There is something very elegant about an artist sitting down alone at a piano and singing, after a texturally dense album, as Cullum does on Christmas Caught Me Crying. The strings come in towards the end, with a feature by the string section leader, John Mills, and might not have been necessary.
The album, however, is such a welcome lift and escape from a challenging year, a very sophisticated soundtrack to Christmas dinner. It’s just a great album!