The day pianist-singer Jamie Cullum nabbed a Brit Award nom for breakthrough artist, he verified in his L.A. debut that this particular accolade — and the considerable gushing ink that preceded it — is deserved. Impish and rascally, Cullum thrashes through the Great American Songbook and a few rockers before treating Radiohead’s “High and Dry” with the gentleness of laying a newborn down to sleep. He does so with overwhelming sincerity and an ingratiating charm that should win over American pop and jazz auds when his disc is finally released Stateside in May.
Material from Gershwin, Monk, David Frishberg and songwriters Frank Sinatra admired fill the bulk of Cullum’s U.K. debut, “Pointless Nostalgia” (Universal), though his first of three nights in L.A. found him widely expanding the breath of the repertoire for which he is known. “I Get a Kick Out of You” was a pounding opener in which Cullum took a Jerry Lee Lewis approach and delivered chordal accents by hitting the keyboard with his foot and butt. The follow-up, Gershwin’s “It Ain’t Necessarily So,” found Cullum playing the piano’s frame and inner workings, holding the hammers and hitting keys to supply a funk rhythm with the slightest of overtones. Both perfs were quite invigorating.
He plays ’em the way he sees ’em, not according to some book that states there’s Frank’s way or the highway. So many singers who have recently decided to go this route have brought minimal personality to their recordings and in some cases even phoned in the vocals; Cullum shows that this music can be presented with jeans-and-T-shirt, fresh-out-of-college point of view. In the recently opened Room 5, above Amalfi restaurant on La Brea, the funkiness of the performer was in line with the venue.
Set included the original “Twentysomething,” a minutia-minded dissertation on post-college life, Jimi Hendrix’s “The Wind Cries Mary,” a solemn “Blame It on My Youth” and “I Could Have Danced All Night,” which Cullum offered as a rave anthem rather than a wistful memory of a night in a ballroom. Bassist Geoff Gascoyne and drummer Sebastiann de Krom have healthy resumes in Brit jazz circles. They handle each tune uniquely rather than falling back on the usual walking bass lines and cymbal rides; Gascoyne in particular played with an unpredictable forcefulness that alternated between setting rhythm and melody in the bass lines.
Cullum will perform at Gotham’s Joe’s Pub on Jan. 21 and 22 as part of a showcase tour that also visits San Francisco, Seattle, Boston and Philadelphia.