Cullum band offers varied repertoire

June 11, 1998|By Judith Green | Judith Green,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Jim Cullum is proud of his jazz band's old-fashioned virtues: its championship of classic repertory, its adherence to performing from memory and its definitive sound.

The instrumentation makes the sound, but the finish comes from the fact that they're played without amplification.

"We are completely acoustic," says Cullum, whose San Antonio, Texas-based group will perform Saturday in Candlelight Concerts' Classic Jazz Series. "I believe that the music should come right off the strings or out of the bells, and not out of the cone of a speaker."

The Jim Cullum Jazz Band, known in these parts from the "Riverwalk: Live From the Landing" radio show that ran for several seasons on WJHU-FM, is a seven-piece group with an unusual fixed instrumentation.

It has a four-piece rhythm section (piano, bass, drums and guitar or banjo) and three horns (cornet, clarinet and trombone). Cullum is the cornetist, and the clarinet is a direct link to his father, Jim Cullum Sr., a longtime jazz musician who died in 1973.

"The rhythm section is not dissimilar to Count Basie of the '30s and '40s," says Cullum, 57. "The horns are those of a classic New Orleans ensemble."

This format is one Cullum worked out with his father when he was a high school musician.

"He was pleased that I found the same kind of things in music that he enjoyed," says Cullum.

The mix of instruments allows for a highly versatile repertory: from the historic jazz of Jelly Roll Morton to "Great American Songbook" composers such as George Gershwin to the sounds of swing.

"We play more than a thousand pieces from memory," says Cullum.

Andy Bienstock, host of a weekday evening jazz program on WJHU-FM, says: "I've seen them live, and they are a dynamite Dixieland band."

Cullum says that what he calls "the three-horn front line" is the best size for collective improvisation.

"At some point, you've either got not enough or too many," he explains. "One horn's a solo, two's a duet. The more horns, the more dependent they are on written scores. With five, it's very difficult; with six or seven, it's almost impossible" to improvise in concert. Three players have "the optimum ability to create interesting things."

The band has explored jazz all the way to borders it shares with formal concert music. One of its "Riverwalk" events, for instance, was a "Porgy and Bess" concert with William Warfield, a famous Porgy of the 1950s, as narrator and the band exploring Gershwin's score in its own free style.

His 35-year-old group, Cullum says, is the result of "a lifetime's work of building a better mousetrap."

Cullum Jazz Band

When: 8 p.m. Saturday

Where: Jim Rouse Theater, Wilde Lake High School, 5460 Trumpeter Road, Columbia

Tickets: $25, seniors $18, students $9

Information: 410-715-0034 or 301-596-6203

Pub Date: 6/11/98

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