Jamie Cullum Interview - Jazzman Jamie on a mission

DAVID WAKEFIELD Two years ago Jamie Cullum made the headlines when, as a comparative unknown, he signed a £1m record deal. So how are things going with the young singer-pianist. DAVID WAKEFIELD found out.


There are all kinds of trendy descriptions one could apply to Jamie Cullum - and the chances are he wouldn't think much of any of them. But there is little doubt that, in today's varied, and sometimes shallow, world of popular music, Jamie stands out as something a bit different.

First and foremost he's an instrumentalist - a position he clings on to fervently among all the hype that has inevitably surrounded the passage to fame of a lad whose first album on a major label sold a million - that's double platinum in recordspeak - and outsold, in the last few months of 2003, the likes of Kylie Minogue, Pink and The Coral. He was, in fact, second only to The Darkness as a debut act in terms of record sales.

Secondly, he's a jazzer. True jazz musicians have sold well in the past - we go back to the likes of Dave Brubeck, Humphrey Lyttelton, Acker Bilk and Monty Sunshine, all of whom had single records in the Top 20. But, more often than not, jazzmen and women have had to be content with ekeing out a living and bolstering the efforts, on stage and on record, of less accomplished artists. What you do not expect to see is someone of this ilk playing Top Of The Pops.

Third, he is, for someone incredibly rich and famous by now, refreshingly ordinary. Any indication that he might be straying from his roots are met with polite, but firm rebuttals. He has, after all, been playing piano regularly in clubs and pubs since he was in his teens, and if Jamie Cullum says that he would still do the same, given half a chance, then you believe him.

My evidence? In the same year that he signed his £1m deal with Universal Music, he turned up at the Burnham Deepdale jazz festival in Norfolk as a pianist, pure and simple, in a friend's band - unheralded, and still, to all intents, an unknown.

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Jamie's new album, Catching Tales, is in the shops from Monday, but I had had a chance to sample it early under strict security. “The record police will be round if you try and flog it,” said the nice man from Universal.

His first UM album Twentysomething, was a mix of originals by Jamie and brother Ben, and familiar standards, like Old Devil Moon and I Get a Kick Out of You - plus the late Jeff Buckley's Lover You Should Have Come Over.

The new collection has moved more to originals, although there are token standards in Gershwin's Fascinating Rhythm (in which he has updated the lyrics just a bit); the old Ruby And The Romantics pop hit Our Day Will Come, and I Only Have Eyes For You - possibly a tribute to the superb Art Garfunkel interpretation of the '70s?

Does this signify Jamie's moving on musically, I asked. Not in so many words came the somewhat crackly reply (our interview was done on mobiles from Jamie's tour bus en route to Essex for a gig at Saffron Walden).

“I just wanted to feel I was evolving a little bit. I wanted to challenge myself and see if I could write a whole record. There's every possibility that in a few albums time I might do a whole album of standards, but, at the moment there are so many 'standardy' albums out there - people re-interpreting the Great American Songbook - that I just wanted to do something different.

“Right now this is what I felt like doing - it's not an abandonment of anything I have done in the past.”

Jamie also arranges his own material, tends to do it within the confines of the trio he works with. “When I do an arrangement it's got to be like you have written it - full of passion and energy.”

I told him I felt there was a good deal of humour on the album - signified by his tweaking of the lyrics on Fascinating Rhythm.

“Hopefully, there is a lot of humour on the whole album,” he said. “People have asked 'is this Jamie Cullum growing up?' I told them that actually it's Jamie Cullum growing down. I am trying to be a bit less mature, a bit younger, and more what I am like in real life.”

It's a sure sign of his appeal that Jamie has 'cracked' America so early in his career. He has done several bus tours of the States, and taken his band into the Algonquin Hotel, New York, one of the top venues for jazz-based artists.

“The reaction has been fantastic wherever we played,” he said, “and the tours have been sold out. And the audiences are, if anything, younger than they are here.”

The perceptive American critics didn't take long to pick up Jamie's pianistic influences - the fact that he occasionally plays standing up (like Little Richard), or throws in 'quotes' from the likes of Erroll Garner, Earl Hines or Dudley Moore. Jamie only admits to being influenced early on by the playing of Herbie Hancock, Oscar Peterson and Keith Jarrett, as well as Elton John and Bruce Hornsby - which gives a fair indication of the breadth of his work.

The Essex gig was Jamie's last for a time - he was due back in action in the Prom in the Park earlier in the month alongside McFly, Sir Willard White and Kim Medcalf (EastEnders Sam Mitchell) who did so well in the celebrity Fame Academy series.

“In the meantime, I'm going AWOL” he chuckled.

Away from touring and playing he likes to live what he calls a normal life.

“The usual stuff,” he said. “I enjoy reading, going to the movies, playing football and tennis, going out with friends, drinking…”

But is it possible for a good-looking 25-year-old with a million-seller album behind him to live “normally”?

“Sure, I get people coming up to me in the street to say 'Hello', which is great. It makes you feel you have more friends than you actually have!”

Jamie's future, in his own terms, is a glorious unknown - although when we spoke he was relishing his week's residency at Ronnie Scott's, with saxophonist Theo Travis, something he regards as an honour.

As for the rest he says, simply: “I don't know. I would like to become a better player and a better singer and introduce more elements into my work. The trick is not to sound like a carbon-copy of your last record.”

The overall feeling of talking to Jamie Cullum is that of his great enjoyment of his work. He had, when we spoke, just come to the end of a tour of Europe, taking in Holland, Finland, Spain and Portugal, in which audiences were huge and, according to Jamie, “very knowledgable about what we were up to. It got me all excited about performing again”.

The only time he was slightly defensive was, curiously, on the subject of jazz. That's not surprising, as some misguided scribe, who should have known better, had labelled him “the greatest British jazz artist alive today” (although he is certainly the biggest-selling jazz artist).

“People question whether I'm jazz or not, and I resolutely say I am, but I am not pushing the boundaries in the usual way. I am pushing the limits of the music in terms of how entertaining and accessible it can be without making it lift music.”

He is lucky, he says, to have his music “pushed” by a major label and thus he is able to bring jazz to a wider audience. “So you can get 16-year-olds who listen to The Strokes and 20-year-olds who like house music to say 'actually this is cooler than I thought'.”

On the evidence so far he's getting there.

Jamie Cullum's new album, Catching Tales, is released on Monday, September 26.



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