Traditional Christmas albums may have somewhat lost their sparkle with the pop-driven masses in era defined by the streaming monopoly, but some albums pierce through the veil, too irresistible, too heart-warming to resist: Jamie Cullum’s ‘The Pianoman at Christmas’ does just that.
Conceived just before the pandemic, and recorded (in a socially-distanced manner of course!) with musical director, Tom Richards, and Grammy-winning producer Greg Wells, Cullum fulfils his wish that “the care, attention to detail and sheer joy that we put into this record will bring a little magic this Christmas.”
On this double-disc escapist feast - one disc comprising of original arrangements, the other edits and reworkings of vintage classics - Cullum manages to side-step dowdiness and excess so often afflicting seasonal albums. He captures the dewy-eyed spirit of hope that the festive period inspires, with just the right amount of bombast and dazzle to please listeners craving a dopamine rush - even if just momentarily.
The clarity in Cullum’s vocal is something to behold. Channelling peak-Sinatra on the smoky ‘Beautiful, Altogether’ and the Big Band showtune ‘Christmas Never Gets Old’, Cullum flits between hearty belts and the tender wistfulness of ‘How Do You Fly’ and ‘Christmas Caught Me Crying’ which bookend the album. The latter soundtracks the solitary nature of Christmas this year, Cullum’s softer register hitting us right in the feels.
Over the course of his career, Jamie Cullum has emerged not just as a master craftsman but an award-winning broadcasting: countersigning the renascent wave of jazz taking over the industry, honouring monolithic greats, the roots of the genre, but also the stars of tomorrow. In a year that has taken more than it’s given, we can rely on unfaltering figures like Jamie, with their finger forever on the industry pulse, to serenade us out of our blues.
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‘The Pianoman at Christmas’ is your first Christmas album. Why was now the right time to release one and did you have any trepidation about recording one?
I’m very good at thinking about right or wrong times to do things. I just go with my gut. I think Christmas means something very different to me now I have my own family. I see it for all its fabulously, chaotic glory and I have a deep respect for the traditional music that surrounds it. It could have been intimidating trying to add to the canon of the old master songs but I decided early on to avoid thinking about it and just have fun with it!
Did you consider any other album title before settling on ‘The Pianoman at Christmas’?
Yes! ‘Hang Your Lights’ was the original title, but we all agreed that the title should have the word Christmas in it. ‘The Pianoman at Christmas’ seemed to evoke something very cinematic which I feel reflects the album pretty well. Sending respect out to Billy Joel of course, it is a term I borrowed for this fictional, festive, joining musician who plays the main character in that song and thus the album.
What was behind your reasoning for not recording a conventional covers album, instead opting for original arrangements influenced by The Great American Songbook?
I wanted my original songs to stand a chance. If you include covers then naturally that would be the first-place people go to. Also, it mainly came down to it not being interesting enough for me to actually do at this stage. I like to scratch my own itch.
Describe the process of recording the album - from initial conversations to recording at Abbey Road - in a dystopic year like 2020?
I started in a very traditional way: just me, the piano and my notebook. All songs were completed end to end in the most straightforward way possible. I then started making voice notes with arrangements ideas and making a playlist of references. I sent all of this to my arranger Tom Richards who did the heavy lifting of doing all the arrangements writing. Demos were done of the songs with all musicians playing their parts in their homes and emailing it back. We used a lot of samples to prepare very detailed, almost album-worthy demos. We were very prepared. By the time we got to Abbey Road we were refining it in very small and exact ways. Once we recorded everything there in five days, all the tracks were sent to be mixed by Greg Wells in LA.
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Often Christmas albums are seen as transitional side-projects in an artist’s career? Where does ‘The Pianoman at Christmas’ stand in your discography? Is it a body of work you feel will stand the test of time?
I really hope so! That was the plan. It does not feel like a novelty record. It feels like another chapter in my songwriting career that gave me full licence to dig into the traditional side of things due to the subject matter. ‘How Do You Fly?’ Is one of my favourite songs I’ve ever written.
What are your go-to Christmas albums? Which artists do you think nailed the format?
Nat King Cole - his voice IS chestnuts! And Sufjan Stevens showed me that modern Christmas albums could be true works of art and a celebration of the season and not just a cash-in.
The album is this wonderful mix of Big Band bombast with songs like ‘Hang Your Lights’ and more soul-stirring, melancholy numbers like ‘Christmas Caught Me Crying’. Was the intention for the record to represent the bittersweet feeling of Christmas this year, which for many will not be a normal Christmas?
It wasn’t a conscious intention. It was more me trying to represent the full spectrum of confusing feelings you get around any “happy” time because this is always more interesting to write about. Christmas itself is full of melancholy. Both the OG Bible story and ‘Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas’ are full of joy and sadness. I didn’t feel any need to reference a pandemic obviously but it came through in subconscious ways - “It’s been a long and lonely year....” starts ‘The Jolly Fat Man’! I only realised these things afterwards. Also, I feel like I was perhaps drawn to writing Christmas songs during lockdown because it was a cosy thing to do!
Which song is the centrepiece of the record for you?
‘Hang Your Lights’ feels like the Christmas Party catharsis song we could do with this year! Shameless, upbeat, joyful and a little bit naughty.
The record retains a generational feeling throughout, there’s something for the kids, some songs are a little more grown and mature – was the record shaped in part by your own experiences as a family at Christmas?
Yes, because I think you go on a journey of appreciating Christmas in a different way over the years of your own development. I’m at the stage now where I feel I understand how it affects every generation in different ways. So, it instinctively came about as something that should appeal across the generations.
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What’s the inspo behind the cover art for the record? To me, it captures the whimsical, cinematic feel of the record beautifully.
Well you’ve just described what I was going for. I wanted something timeless that didn’t shove tinsel down your throat! I think my wife and I were also daydreaming about going to a party; I also really like album covers that tell a story where the viewer fills in the gaps with their own story.
What for you are the core ingredients you need to make a timeless Christmas song?
I think a combination of nostalgia, cosiness, lyrical playfulness - a gorgeous melody helps too. I think Christmas music should feel like you’re coming home to a warm place.
Last week, you took part in the WaterAid sessions from home, and we experienced some of the songs in an acoustic set-up. The album conjures up warm memories of live music. How has the lack of performing and touring affected you this year? Are you craving the communal experience?
I’m craving the communal experience as a viewer more than anything. I love performing but I can certainly live without it. Other things feed me what I need for a sense of self.
You’ve been very honest about being saddled with the ‘jazz’ title, and how hefty and complex that describer is. Do you feel the “jazz musician” title has ever hindered you? Or is it something you’ve come to expect/embrace?
Definitely not hindered me. I’m honoured to be in that category, but I’ve often felt I’m not accomplished enough in this area to be considered in the same genre as the greats who define this genre. I embrace it because I love jazz but I hope to grow as a musician in my lifetime to truly earn it.
You’ve spearheaded your own Radio 2 Jazz show for a while now. Jazz is very much a revived genre. Which contemporary artists are your listening to? Which artists are breaking new ground?
So many! I think Moses Boyd has really made something beautiful this year with his album ‘Dark Matter’. It is uncompromising jazz, it is Black Britain, multicultural London, melodically beautiful, tough, modern, grimy, iridescent and freaking listenable to boot.
In 2021, we all hope to regain a sense of normalcy. What’s in store for you next year? What would you like to do next year that was put on hold?
I would love to play the gigs that were put on hold and I’d like to go to a beach and have a swim!
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‘The Pianoman at Christmas’ is out now.
Interview: Shahzaib Hussain
Photo Credit: Ed Cooke
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