Jamie Cullum: Mad About Music
“ As I watched them play they looked so happy just to be playing. When I saw that, I thought, 'I want to do that, I want to be that good and I want to play with that much passion.' ”
Jamie Cullum is an innovator and an artist whose music speaks to a new generation of music fans and jazz enthusiasts alike. The title track from Twentysomething (Verve Forecast, 2004) is much like an anthem for this new cohort of music fans. He is a consummate musician and his passion for his art is clear, repeatedly showcased by his skilled improvisation and the clever lyrics of his compositions which set him apart from any artist of his kind. There is such sincerity in his vocal interpretations that fans of various ages can relate to the topics discussed in his songs.
Cullum maintains a composition's original structure, while breathing captivating new verve into timeless songs such as, "Singing In The Rain, "I Get A Kick Out of You and "I Could Have Danced All Night, to name a few.
As a young artist who is well on his way to becoming a household name, he appreciates who the great storytellers were before him. His music is a product of his intense love for various genres fostered during his adolescence, among them an admiration for jazz.
Having played countless gigs as an adolescent, he was able to competently gain the experience that seasoned players obtain through years of extensive travel on the road.
He has an air of both veracity and professional integrity. Cullum has enjoyed much success since his debut release Pointless Nostalgic (Candid, 2002), and likewise his most recent release Catching Tales (Verve Forecast, 2005) has garnered much critical acclaim and success.
Although currently on tour, I was able to speak with him during one of his free moments.
All About Jazz: You come from a musical family, your father played the guitar and your mother played the piano.
Jamie Cullum: Well my father played very badly, he could only play three chords. I think the musical part of the family really comes from the fact that we had a piano in the house and my mother sang in church. My brother was always interested in music from day one, so that is the connection.
AAJ: When was the first time that you knew that you had the talent to make music your career?
JC: That was not until I was twenty-one. I had already made my first album and played many gigs. I never thought that it would be my career, even when I was playing clubs and pubs. I earned a degree in Film and English Literature and in the back of my mind I didn't think that I had the talent or the drive, but it just happened.
One turning point I think was the night before my final. For one of my film exams, which was on Alfred Hitchcock, I went to the movies to watch Rear Window, and I went to Ronnie Scott's after the show to see the Mingus big band and something really clicked that night. There were twenty-five people in the band and ten people in the audience. As I watched them play they looked so happy just to be playing. When I saw that, I thought, "I want to do that, I want to be that good and I want to play with that much passion.
AAJ: Your brother was one of the major influences for you as you grew up. He showed you how to be very open-minded about different styles of music. Was there one particular artist that inspired you to become a pianist?
JC: There were so many really. I guess it would have to be Herbie Hancock, if I have to go back to a true source of inspiration. Another great source of inspiration was Harry Connick, Jr. and Ben Folds as well. I was listening to a lot of rock, disco, rave, electronica and hip-hop during the time when I started to listen to Herbie Hancock. My brother and I checked out albums like Head Hunters (Columbia/Legacy, 1973), Thrust (Columbia/Legacy, 1974) and albums like that.
The first Harry Connick, Jr. album I listened to was an album called, She (Columbia, 1994). Which was a big album for him, which kind of freaked everyone out because he did all this funky stuff. It is the first album of his that I heard and really fell in love with. I had the opportunity to hear him perform that album live and that blew me away, and it was around that time that I was really into Ben Folds Five and I went to see him. Those are the three people who made me want to play. After that it was Bill Evans, Thelonious Monk, and Keith Jarrett that inspired me as well.
AAJ: All extremely talented artists. You have been playing music longer than some may think. You have been playing in bands since you were a teenager. Did that help you become even more focused in knowing exactly what direction you wanted your music to take?
JC: Well, what really helped is all that kind of pre-production. It was really just the experience of playing onstage. When I made Twentysomething, Pointless Nostalgic and Catching Tales, in terms of what music I wanted to do I absolutely knew, but there was far more experimentation. I went into the studioyou know, these are the ideas, these are the songs, and these are the arrangements, but I wanted to play around with them, I wasn't completely closed off and not open to other ideas.
The experiences I had really enabled me to take the chances I had and make the best of them. You know when Universal did sign me and I did my first showcase, I didn't choke because I had played so many gigs, I knew how to play to audiences. I pulled it off and that was really importanthaving that experience because these days, you shove a new artist in front of a showcase audience and they freak out. I probably did five or six hundred gigs before my first showcase and that was pretty easy compared to playing a wedding gig.
AAJ: I think that it is great for an upcoming artist to have that level of experience. If you look at a show like American Idol so many of the artists do not really know what they are getting into.
JC: That is true, but that is what a show like that is for. I am really fond of the two idols that the show has produced, Kelly Clarkson and Ruben Studdard. They are both really good, they are great singers they are true pop stars. I think the industry needs people like that to mold. One of my favorite songs of last year was "Since You've Been Gone, by Kelly Clarkson, and a song like that can only come from the product of a really good song writer or a really good producer and then a really good singer. Sometimes something that good can only come about when every part is taken care of by the best in their field. I'm not too quick to criticize that kind of show because you have to know what you're getting with them. You're not going to get the next Brad Mehldau but you just might get the next Dionne Warwick, someone with a really great voice for their craft.
AAJ: There is a definite need for more forums to discover new talent. These reality shows can be great platforms in that respect.
JC: It is but it has also made getting discovered even that much harder in some ways because young kids are growing up thinking that that is the only way to get into the music industry. They need to know that they can get out there and play gigs and learn their craft.
AAJ: What do you think when people compare you to crooners of the golden age, and call you "Sinatra in sneakers ? Are you comfortable with that? Is that a validation for you or are you uncomfortable with such comparisons?
JC: When people do say that it is normally because they have seen a clip on television or they have heard about half a track. As soon as you have been to one of my shows or have heard an album all the way through, those common thoughts go out the window.
AAJ: Exactly. Anyone who is not entirely familiar with your music would jump to that conclusion.
JC: Right. They would make that assumption. There are moments of crooning in my shows and then moments of rocking-out, moments of electronica, moments of pop and moments of straight-ahead jazz. You know the crooning aspect is really a very small part of what I do. That includes the repertoire and the approach to singing.
AAJ: You have said before that your music has an intelligent bedrock and an intelligent edge that many people can enjoy, not exclusively jazz aficionados. Does it bother you at all if someone says that your music is not truly jazz? I would think that your very successful career would be a validation to keep doing what you do. You have many fans.
JC: It would bother me if I couldn't do certain things. I have played opposite Coldplay and The White Stripes. I had the chance to play the Newport Jazz Festival opposite Dave Brubeck, Herbie Hancock, and Wayne Shorter. At most of those shows we managed to engage the audiences. We have engaged the rock and pop audiences. The Newport Jazz Festival is probably one of the most famous jazz festivals in the world and we managed to engage the main stage audience with no difficulty.
I am not out to impress the hardcore jazz fans as much as I am not out to impress the hardcore indie rockers. I am just making good music which has a bedrock in jazz, a bedrock in pop, and good song writing. I play with jazz musicians and we improvise and we change the set up, and we do change the way we play the songs. We are also not too proud to play a good groove and stick to it, play harmonies and have fun on stage. If we want to play a certain song then we will do it. That is what makes it special, different and interesting.
If a jazz purist doesn't like it, that's great. He can go back and sit in a dark room and listen to what he does, like I do on a night off. I'll be sitting there listening to Sonny Rollins reissues with no problem, but sometimes, I want to go out there and wrap my head around Queens of The Stone Age. I am a music fan, not a music snob.
AAJ: That is a great distinctiona music fan versus a music snob. Your fans see you at your concerts performing material from George Gershwin and Pharrell Williams to your own compositions. You have to be connected and have a love for music to be able to do that.
JC: Absolutely, the jazz artists that I have always really admired apart from the obvious greats are really the ones who switch it around and don't do what you expect. People like, Dave Douglas, Brad Mehldau, Patricia Barber, people that are not afraid to do what is outside of what jazz aficionados expect them to do. Jazz musicians are very open, but sometimes the audience thinks that for example, Brad Mehldau sits at home and listens to nothing but Bill Evans and Keith Jarrett and that's just not true.
AAJ: In your opinion, what is the best jazz album of all time?
JC: That is an extremely difficult question to answer really. I don't want to go straight to the clichés but, I think one of the first jazz albums I really connected withyou know, as a youngster before I knew anything about jazz, was In a Silent Way (Columbia/Legacy, 1969), by Miles Davis. I know it is not like his most outgoing record, it is very spacey and it is very single chord driven, but there is something about the way that music was put together, it spoke to me in a way that no other music had spoke to me before. I realized that the essence of jazz was in the way that I connected to it: the space, the inter-vibration, the conversation, the spontaneity, and the groove. It wasn't swing and it wasn't funk or fusion, it was just this music that seemed to come from the heart and the brain at the same time. This albumI couldn't quite get my head around it but I knew I loved it, and for that reason I always think of that album as the birth of my real understanding of what jazz is.
AAJ: I think one of the great things about jazz is that you can take various influences and explore them and create something new, which is like what you do with your music.
JC: I see other artists who aren't jazz artists but are doing similar things, like Bjork, Brad Mehldau, and all these artists who are creating their own sounds, and that is why jazz is so great, because it is so open to that. It is so malleable it is the widest path to take you wherever you want to go.
AAJ: You create new adaptations to songs that are already thought to be great in their own right, like songs from the Great American Songbook. Do you ever feel the pressure to make a cover song great in a new way, or do you feel that it is at all expected of you to make it completely your own?
JC: When I think of a song I want to do, it is because I have an idea for it. I don't really pick songs and say to myself, "How can I make this different? It is normally more about hearing a great song that I love and having a way to approach it. If I was just going to take a song and make it different, I don't think that it would have the same kind of passion connected to it. For instance, when I did Jimi Hendrix's "Wind Cries Mary, apart from the fact that I loved it, I had this crazy dream about Dr. John and Hendrix having it out together. From that moment on the idea was born, and it comes in those types of impulses. I'm always thinking about ideas, lyrics, chords, and songs, so I'm never really short on ideas.
AAJ: Were you at all surprised by the success of your most recent release, Catching Tales?
JC: Well, I think it is always going to be difficult following up to an album as successful as Twentysomething. I didn't expect one thing or the other I just made music that I believed in.
AAJ: Every artist hopes to leave their mark through their music, what do you hope yours to be?
JC: All I have ever really wanted to do is be a great musician. Long before I ever had a career, I just wanted to play well and play with good musicians. It sounds maybe over modest, but that is still really all I want to dobe a really good player. Careers don't last very long these days, just having a career that lasts longer than ten years is a big enough deal in the industry today, so that would be a good start, at the end of all that, I would like to be regarded as someone who could really play, really sing, and really write. I don't need to shift another ten million units I would just like to be regarded as a great musician."
Geoff Gascoyne, Keep It to Yourself (Candid Records, 2006)
Jamie Cullum, Catching Tales (Verve Forecast, 2005)
Jamie Cullum, Twentysomething (Universal/Verve, 2004)
Jamie Cullum, Pointless Nostalgic (Candid Records, 2003)
All Photos: Jos L. Knaepen