Cullum burst on the scene in 2003 with Twentysomething, a selection of standards, originals and surprising cover versions, including Hendrix’s ‘Wind Cries Mary’. His new album The Pursuit begins with a mischievously crooned version of the Cole Porter standard ‘Just One Of Those Things’, complete with raucous accompaniment by the Count Basie Orchestra and a devilishly funky bass riff. It ends with ‘Music is Through’, which sounds as if it has been kidnapped from a House club. All the way through, Cullum demonstrates the art of soloing without ever outstaying the welcome, or giving the impression that he sets out to dazzle rather than serve the song.
I meet the piano master in a trendy pub in north London, Jamie’s local. The conversation begins with record-shopping. ‘To be honest’, says Jamie, ‘I spend a large amount of time record-hunting.’
Sublime: What’s the last batch you bought?
Jamie Cullum: I bought some vinyl reissues of a band called The Monks, a great rock ’n’ roll band which I loved. Some Moondog stuff, some new reissues from Souljazz on Berwick Street in Soho. I bought some old Georgie Fame records when I was in Paris, and some Charles Lloyd records. Some old New York 80s hip-hop. I’m a collector. It’s a filthy, filthy habit.
S: For this album, you really seemed to have set out no plan whatsoever, in terms of style and direction.
JC: The plan I had was not to feel there were any walls or ceiling to what I was doing. I just wanted to make sure that if I was going to do a track, I would do it 100% the way it needed to be done, as opposed to thinking, ‘I can’t push it that far because people think of me in a different way.’ If a track needed guitars, then it had them. If it needed an orchestra, it had one. If the beat needed to be like a disco beat, so be it. I guess I just embraced my childlike fascination with what’s available to a musician when they have a studio and a certain budget to make a record with. It’s almost the antithesis to the way the record industry wants records to be made.
S: It’s a paradox, isn’t it? As an artist, you have embraced technology in order to be able to make all kinds of music in all sorts of places, and yet exactly that modernist attitude goes completely against the grain of all the marketing strategies of modern record companies. They want artists to fit into one particular box and stay there.
JC: It’s just something you have to deal with. Artists spend their whole career trying to climb out of that box. Behind it lies the thinking that it will be easier for an audience to get into an artist if he or she can be thought of in a certain way. Sometimes that can be a great gateway to becoming interested. When I discovered Harry Connick Jr I had no idea he was doing Big Band music. The first album of his I heard is called She, a New Orleans funk album. I went to see a gig, the famous gig where people walked out because they were expecting Big Band stuff. I was just going to hear the New Orleans funk stuff. Everyone had him in that Big Band box, but I had him in a box that was less popular.
S: With jazz having such a diverse history, often the assumption is made that a player has to have spent his whole life growing into one particular style to be able to claim the seal of authenticity. There is a certain type of – deeply irritating – purist who will resent any mixing-up of styles.
JC: It’s funny, I always think of myself as a jazz musician who is quite happy to make pop records. I grew up with pop and rock and hip-hop and sampled music, alongside listening to jazz, and there are many people who make music like that. I think Steely Dan are a bit like that, and Bruce Hornsby. It’s certainly not an alien concept. When I come out with an album, they say, ‘He’s made a jazz record.’ Really, though, if the album was a person, the heart would be jazz, the skeleton and the skin rock and pop and funk and hip-hop. That mixture makes me who I am.
S: You went to Reading University, but I assume you spent every minute playing music?
JC: I played gigs all the time and I made a living, I paid my way through university. But I was also a serious student, doing the academic stuff, Chaucer and Shakespeare and James Joyce and Hitchcock and D. W. Griffiths, stuff like that. The only music I did was for fun, and to pay the rent. Still, at that point I didn’t think I’d be making music for a living. I had no idea what I wanted to do. It wasn’t until I’d left university that I thought, I’ll give this music thing a go.
S: And five minutes later fame hit you over the head?
JC: It obviously seems that way, but it wasn’t five minutes later. I made an album while I was at university one summer with my student loan, to sell at gigs. Then I made another album independently after university. I’d book my own tours, have my own bands, sell t-shirts and CDs from the back of my car. That was about three years after university. Then I got signed by Candid Records, a smaller label, then Universal took me on. So it was a slower road than it might have appeared. When Twentysomething came out, that’s when things really took off. But that was my third record.
S: So going on stage came naturally to you by the time the halls got bigger.
JC: At that stage I had a lot of experience of being on stage. When it came to doing all the showcases for the media, I wasn’t terrified. I was: ‘Pfft, I can do this, I’ve played in a thousand pubs over the last five years, this is something I know I can do.’
S: You’ve visited Ethiopia as part of a UNESCO delegation. How did that influence your perspective on things?
JC: In a massive way, just seeing a country like that. People think of Ethiopia as a place of famine and poverty. Of course, they have immense problems with those things, but it’s also an incredibly vibrant country. I think it’s really important to know that because it gives the people much more dignity. I think they need help, but only so they can help themselves.
S: Did you get to meet musicians while you were there?
JC: It was very interesting. I’d really got into Ethiopian music before going there, and then I met one of the great musicians of Ethiopia, Mulatu Astatke, who pioneered a kind of sound known as Ethio-jazz. It sounds like a mixture of Miles Davis and James Brown but with that very specific Ethiopian-sounding scale on the piano. I did get to play with an Ethiopian band, and heard some great music while I was there.
S: What’s your home studio called again?
JC: Terrified Studios.
S: And your record label is called?
JC: Terrified Records.
S: Clearly you like the word ‘terrified’.
JC: I was about to go on stage for my Blenheim Palace gig, which is where we did the DVD, and I was really nervous. I was all psyched up, and suddenly the stage manager came and said: ‘You can’t go on stage, there’s something wrong with the lights.’ So I was waiting, getting more and more nervous. And my manager said: ‘OK, you need to decide on a name for your company, for your accounts. That’ll take your mind off this.’ I said: ‘Terrified.’ So now everything’s Terrified.
S: But to be terrified is sometimes a really good thing because I suspect if you’re in a position like you are – successful, you do whatever you want, you know half the world, at the drop of a hat you can go to Ethiopia or Brazil – there’s a danger that you might end up in a very smug sort of place.
JC: I agree, and I see it a lot. My personality is not really like that, though. I’m sometimes overly grateful. Lots of people are musical and have the gift of being able to play music, but very few people have the privilege of being able to make it their work. I never take that for granted. Smugness is an attribute in people that I absolutely abhor.
S: Your parents played as a duo themselves in pubs and at weddings and barmitzvahs, funerals and such. Do you think, having seen music in that context, a different kind of musician is very precious about where he plays and how? Has it allowed you to be more relaxed in what you’re doing, and not worry about coolness and things like that?
JC: My parents were performing before I was born; after I was born they didn’t really do that any more. But I knew they’d done it, and it was obviously in me somewhere. By the time I was 16 I was playing by myself in piano bars and pubs, strip clubs – I did every kind of gig imaginable. When you get to this stage it does make you less precious and more amenable to situations. It means that you can cope when the sound isn’t just right. It means you can pitch up in the corner of a pub and play a secret gig. You don’t have that, ’Oh my God, the sound isn’t right’, or you don’t have the right monitors, or the right costume. It’s about the music you play, not about all the sparkle around it. It’s about the bit in the middle, you behind the piano connecting with the people listening to you.
S: Looking back at the new album, it’s like a journey. It begins with Big Band jazz, ends with House and yet in its sequence it makes sense and belongs together.
JC: I’m glad you said that because it could be considered a stretch in terms of styles. But, as I said, this is just who I am, and I think my interest in House music is as deep as my interest in jazz, and I wanted to include that in some non-opportunistic way. The album is a journey. It’s an unfashionable, complete album. It’s not an album that works, necessarily, just on individual tracks. All the tracks make sense as you listen to the album as it was intended to be heard, which is deeply unfashionable in the 21st century.