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A new twist on an old game

Looking at the current crop of musical offerings, it seems that radio and music television allow only a few media-friendly artists to achieve mainstream success. In selecting which artists to grant exposure to, the media has homogenized much of mainstream radio. In order to experience the musical talents of some independent or underground artists, one must venture elsewhere, often relying on word-of-mouth to discover these under-the-radar acts.

This is precisely how I was introduced to Jamie Cullum, a British jazz singer/songwriter steadily gaining fame in the United States. A friend informed me of his concert Tuesday at the Tampa Theatre. After hearing a couple of Cullum’s songs, I was impressed enough by what I heard to attend the show, though I had no idea what I was in for.

Before Cullum took the stage, another remarkably talented musician named Raul Midon performed an hourlong set, belting out nearly every track from his debut album, State of Mind. A vocal combination of soul legends Stevie Wonder and Donny Hathaway, Midon’s distinctive style combines his acoustic guitar skills and brilliant vocal trumpet improvisations with a wide range of musical influences, including soul, jazz and Latin.

According to his Web site,, Midon has been blind since birth, yet his music remains wholly positive. His pure energy and infectious enthusiasm on songs such as “Never Get Enough” and “Sittin’ in the Middle” revved up the crowd, while tracks such as “Suddenly” and “If You’re Gonna Leave” showcased his ability to craft love songs that manage to be poignant and honest without relying on clichés.

After Midon’s performance, Cullum finally took the stage, starting things off with “Photograph,” an exuberant track from his latest album, Catching Tales. Adept at playing the piano, acoustic guitar and drums, Cullum sailed through a number of his hits, including “Twentysomething,” “Get Your Way” and his newest single, “Mind Trick.” In between songs, he talked candidly with the audience, explaining the origins of certain songs and revealing the cultural differences he encounters on this side of the Atlantic.

Cullum is a master at infusing his tunes with emotion and excitement. Throughout his two-hour roster of haunting melodies and covers of standard tunes, Cullum often nodded his head rhythmically as he played, jumped across the stage at a crucial moment in a song and pounded the drums with an energy sadly lacking from most of today’s performers.

The crowd’s response was overwhelming, as numerous admirers frequently rose mid-song to dance to the music. At one point, Cullum called fans to approach the stage, and nearly half of the audience rushed down the aisle to heed his call.

Later on, Cullum returned the favor by coming into the crowd, climbing atop the seats as he sang to them. Clapping along to the beat and clearly having a ball, the audience gave Cullum a standing ovation as he concluded his show. He continued his set with an encore that lasted more than 20 minutes.

Aside from his contagious enthusiasm, what is most striking about Cullum’s music is the manner in which he completely revitalizes the jazz style. With his youthful voice and hip musical sensibility, Cullum puts a modern spin on one of the oldest forms of music, making it accessible to fans of all genres.