Recording for a legendary jazz label may be fraught with expectations, especially for a contemporary artist with unabashedly eclectic tastes. But at this stage in his career, upwards of 10 million album sales along, Jamie Cullum doesn’t appear the least bit concerned with where his music falls on the pop-jazz spectrum. Arriving five years after his last album and marking his eighth studio release, Taller is Cullum’s most self-assured and least calculated offering to date, engaging for its candor, craft, and dynamic breadth.
The British singer/songwriter and keyboardist can win over live audiences on the strength of his showmanship alone. On recordings, though, his boyish croon isn’t appealing enough to compensate for a throwaway lyric or dull arrangement. Fortunately, the long layoff between releases seems to have sharpened Cullum’s pen and wits. After kicking off with the wry, self-referential title track, Taller delivers a series of strong performances, intimate and expansive by turns. The upbeat tracks, more often than not, leave the most lasting impressions, whether it’s the gospel-charged “Mankind” or the Prince-inflected “Usher.” Of course, the album’s commercial prospects will likely benefit from Cullum’s cleverly rebooted brand of pop and funk.
In addition to Prince’s influence, echoes of Billy Joel and Elton John abound, providing a vibrant contrast to the introspective musings and piano ballads. As for jazz listeners, the greatest rewards are to be found in the details this time around: the layered orchestrations; the harmonic nuances; the spacious, often melancholy atmospherics. A long time coming, Taller may not represent a towering achievement for Cullum, but it’s clearly inspired by a variety of fresh songwriting perspectives.
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