Jamie Cullum appears on a 70th anniversary special edition of Desert Island Discs

BBC Music Magazine's Neil McKim heads to St George's, Bristol, for a live recording of the legendary Radio 4 show with jazz pianist Jamie Cullum 

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Jamie CullumJamie Cullum, now 32, is one of the few living British ‘jazz’ household names. When his second album Twentysomething (click here to listen on Spotify) was released in 2003 there was barely a bus shelter or train station in the country that didn’t sport a poster of its cover. This release secured him a place as the UK’s biggest selling jazz artist in history. And this is somewhat ironic as it’s arguably not even his best album. But, as anyone who has seen him perform live knows, he is truly a sensational performer.

Last week Bristol hosted a unique recording of Desert Island Discs. To celebrate 70 years of stranding its castaways, Radio 4 decided to celebrate by recording a special show in front of a live audience, for the first time ever, at St George’s, Bristol.

The demand for the free tickets demonstrated the popularity of the show and its choice of guest – with over 2,500 people applying for 400 places. The event was billed as the start to Radio 4’s innovative More Than Words Listening Festival, taking place with broadcasts of shows from venues across the city. I’ve never seen St George’s so packed and with such an enthusiastic crowd, as Desert Island Discs presenter Kirsty Young welcomed Cullum, the show’s ‘2,890th castaway’ on stage…

Later, I was surprised to overhear several people commenting on Cullum’s choice of music. ‘I’m surprised he didn’t include more jazz standards’ said one and ‘we weren’t sure about his choices’, queried another. But perhaps they had forgotten that this event isn’t a concert. Where Desert Island Discs excels is that it gives a unique opportunity for a guest to select music that tells something about who they are.

Cullum has always been seen as a bit of a West Country hero, and it was fascinating for me to hear him tell his story. ‘What’s a boy from Wiltshire got to do with New Orleans? he suggested, before performing a knockout version of ‘Do You Know What It Means To Miss New Orleans’ – originally made famous by Louis Armstrong and Billie Holiday (on Spotify here) – on the venue’s Steinway piano. He told us that this was the first jazz piece he’d learnt and played in public, at a pub in the village of Colerne. He had later played it in New Orleans!

But, as some of his more eclectic choices were played over the speaker system, it was clear that some of his selections, such as the drum ‘n’ bass track ‘Brown Paper Bag’ by Bristol’s Roni Size, were leaving some of the older jazz-fan elements of the audience looking baffled. This was deftly picked up by Kirsty Young who ironically quipped: ‘You can all sit down now’ after it had finished.

The recording of the show revealed some fascinating insights into Cullum’s life. He discussed how his supportive family background had helped him deal with fame, his experience of working with Clint Eastwood in Hollywood, and how he had (at first reluctantly) taken over as a presenter on Radio 2, after the death of Humphrey Lyttleton. We were treated to him playing a live version of Randy Newman’s ‘I Think It’s Going To Rain Today’, the song, which he and his wife Sophie Dahl had performed together – when they first met at a charity function.

But it was the encore that really got the crowd going. Cullum performed ‘Please Don’t Stop The Music’ from his last album (click here to listen on Spotify). His jacket off, tie loosened, slapping the piano, he delivered a true-to-form performance. He received a rapturous applause, the baffled jazz fans now seemingly reassured. But how many of them know it was made famous by Rihanna? And this is proof of how Cullum – like many of his eminent jazz predecessors – can so successfully take a pop song and create his own ‘jazz standard’.

The edition of Desert Island Discs with Jamie Cullum as a castaway will be broadcast on Radio 4 on Sunday 25 March, at 11.15am and repeated on Friday 30 March at 9am. 

Neil McKim is production editor of BBC Music Magazine