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Jamie Cullum: The Boy of Summer

Jamie Cullum
Jamie Cullum

It’s a deceptively warm Toronto afternoon in late March, the tantalizing promise of spring in the air not yet quite fulfilled. Rather perfect conditions, it seems, for the arrival of Jamie Cullum, in town for a whirlwind 24-hours of press-hopping and flesh-pressing.

In his native England, the 24-year-old singer-pianist is well established as the Next Big Thing. With three albums under his slender belt, he’s already ranked as the biggest-selling British jazz artist in that nation’s history. His U.K. concerts are sold out months in advance. He has, much to his chagrin, been hailed as “Sinatra in sneakers” and “the David Beckham of jazz.” Verve has shelled out ?1 million to launch the diminutive wunderkind and his latest disc, Twentysomething, across North America. He’s poised to eclipse Peter Cincotti, Michael Buble and perhaps even Harry Connick Jr. in the contemporary hipster-crooner sweepstakes.

The tantalizingly sweet smell of promise is in the air, but the begging question is, can Cullum fulfill it?

Spend a couple of hours with the young charmer and the answer-a resounding “Yes”-becomes obvious.

Like Cincotti, Buble and the wet-behind-the-ears Connick of a decade or so ago, he backs genuine talent with an endearing blend of brash chutzpah, boyish pluck and ballsy showmanship-which, in Cullum’s case, means everything from Jerry Lee Lewis-style keyboard pounding to plucking the piano strings with his left hand while tickling the ivories with his right and bouncing between tables while taking healthy sips from patrons’ wineglasses.

But Cullum’s got something the others lack.

It’s the precise same tactical advantage that placed the Beatles a notch above all the other British Invasion warriors. He is, like John, George, Ringo and particularly Paul before him, a master of adorable subversion. The Fab Four, though still struggling in ’64 to find the voice that would ultimately define their era’s social commentary, spoke both of and for their generation, but did so in a way that was, unlike the Stones, cleverly unthreatening. Parents didn’t necessarily comprehend their yeah-yeah sensibility, nor did critics, but both accepted the mop-topped rockers as a fairly innocent diversion.

So, too, Cullum seems singularly skilled at turning traditional attitudes about jazz singing (and playing) inside out while simultaneously wooing two (or more) generations of listeners. Hear him swing through “You’re Nobody Till Somebody Loves You” with finger-poppin’ Bobby Darin ease, transform a show tune as silken as “I Could Have Danced All Night” into a gleeful, one-too-many hangover anthem, gently expose the slacker underbelly of his peers with the self-penned “Next Year, Baby” then illuminate their collective angst with “Twentysomething,” and you start to understand there’s a rather bold revolutionary lurking behind that baby face. The wave that is currently ushering him into American record stores and onto Stateside playlists isn’t, of course, anywhere near the tidal variety that landed those four lads from Liverpool on our shores. Still, I suspect that, five years hence, we’ll have seen him do more than most to advance the beyond-category, pop-rock-jazz-folk fusion ignited by Norah Jones and her ilk, and recently fueled by Elvis Costello’s North and Diana Krall’s The Girl in the Other Room.

A few minutes late for our lunchtime interview, Cullum confesses that he was sidetracked by the lure of a nearby sports equipment emporium. Showing off his new “trainers,” he’s giddily excited about how remarkably inexpensive they were.

Does, we wonder aloud, a rising star with a 1 million pound contract in his back pocket need be concerned with cheap running shoes?

Ah, the money.

That indelicate topic that radiates like a beacon above his tousled locks. Turns out, it’s a nonstarter. Cullum isn’t rich, at least not yet. “It’s a load of bollocks, as we say in England. It only became a news story because of the paradox of using the words ‘million pounds’ and ‘jazz’ in the same sentence,” he says, pointing out that the money isn’t his personally, but is instead a “ballpark figure” of what Verve intends spending in support of Twentysomething. “I got enough to pay off my student loan and buy myself a new guitar. I’ve still yet to see any real money connected to this. The only way I’ve earned anything is through writing my own songs.”

Tracing the backstory of a 24-year-old doesn’t usually require too much digging. In Cullum’s case, though, his professional evolution dates back nearly two decades. “When we were very young, my older brother and I both had piano lessons, [but] I wasn’t interested in the music we were learning. I was more interested in football and toy soldiers. Music was something I had no aptitude for. At school I was showing aptitude for a lot of things like art and English and math. I was quite an academic child. My brother, conversely, was quite bad at school but very good at music. I looked up to him quite a lot and when he got his first electric guitar that was my turning point back into music. I thought guitar was cool, and all the music I was listening to-Nirvana and Rage Against the Machine and a lot of heavy metal and then Jimi Hendrix and Led Zeppelin-was guitar-based. Also, guitar was the thing all the girls wanted to see you play.”

How, then, the leap from Kurt Cobain to Dave Brubeck?

Cullum, who, apart from those childhood piano lessons, has had no formal instruction, insists that, “jazz kind of filtered into my life by osmosis. Around age 14, I really started to get into music as an important part of my life. I was listening to a lot of hip-hop, like the Pharcyde and Public Enemy and Guru. They, of course, used a lot of jazz samples in what they were doing. Every time I heard a sax break or a piano break I’d go, ‘That’s cool; that’s something I haven’t heard before,’ and seek it out, which led me to names like Herbie Hancock and Oscar Peterson. My mum and dad weren’t jazzheads, but one day my dad put on Dave Brubeck in the car and I was really hip to his kind of ‘Take Five’ groove. Then I saw Harry Connick Jr., saw this young guy doing what he was doing and thought, ‘OK, hang on, hold up, what am I missing here?’ So I started getting some jazz records. The first one was Harry’s trio album Lofty’s Roach Souffle, which led me to Thelonious Monk Plays Duke Ellington and, because I was really into the Fender Rhodes, Herbie Hancock’s Head Hunters and Miles Davis’ In a Silent Way. Those were my first four jazz records. From there I worked backwards, all the way to Jelly Roll Morton. I wasn’t missing anything, and I was reading everything I could on jazz. By the time I was 17 or 18, my actual knowledge of jazz-not necessarily how to play it-but my knowledge of the musicians and history was pretty keen.”

Frustrated with lack of time to “translate the music that was going on in my head to my hands,” Cullum approached his parents with the idea of quitting school and “hanging out for a year and playing music and getting gigs. They were kind of cool and said, ‘Well, as long as you get a job and aren’t living off us,’ so I got a job in a garage and saved up a load of money. Then I got a gig in a local hotel playing piano in the foyer.”

Wanderlust beckoned, and Cullum ventured to Paris, “to pretend I was Jack Kerouac and meet some French girls and party and drink red wine. I planned to stay a week, but stayed for five months, met a girl, fell in love and saw lots of music. I saw Keith Jarrett there and Dave Douglas and Wynton Marsalis. It fueled my interest in living a nonmaterialistic kind of artistic life, just hanging out and being creative and writing and generally being a boho freak.”

Back in England, Cullum began traveling the regional jazz circuit, “playing four or five nights a week with various sorts of older jazz bands based in Wiltshire and Bristol and Bath and Swindon.” While sitting in with these slightly creaky combos, Cullum was presented with a career-altering demand mighty similar to the one faced a half-century earlier by Nat “King” Cole. “They invited me back each week as long as I not only played but also sang a new song.” For a greenhorn jazz singer without a shred of training, there couldn’t have been a better education. “No one read charts, so I had to know all the tunes,” he explains. “Everything Ellington, everything Gershwin, everything Berlin, everything Porter. I learned all those tunes by ear, and whatever chords I didn’t know were shouted at me during the songs.”

In terms of vocal influences, Cullum confesses, “Kurt Elling became my shrine, the absolute god of all. I think he is an absolute genius. He is the sum of all parts that have come before him and has actually transcended the masters. I think he copied Mark Murphy a great deal but has brought it to the next level in terms of perfection. I got into Kurt and then got hip to everyone else, from Jon Hendricks and Mark Murphy on down. Also Andy Bey. He was at Ronnie Scott’s for a week, and I saw him six nights in a row. I got into huge amounts of debt going to see Andy Bey! He’s terrific. What I love about him is that he creates an atmosphere. As soon as he opens his mouth you’re transported to another place.”

Much has been made in the British press of the foolhardily brave decision by the 21-year-old Cullum, still largely an unknown in jazz circles, to self-finance and self-produce his debut album, Heard It All Before. “Well,” he smiles sheepishly, “I wish it was that cool. I’d made loads of demos with shitty rock bands and shitty pop bands. I just wanted to do something that was totally mine, and I thought, ‘Well, no one my age has done an album of jazz standards played live. We can record it in an afternoon and sell it for 10 quid at gigs and make loads of cash!’ It cost me about 500 quid to make 500 of them. I sold them all, and now a single copy of the album is going on eBay for more than it cost to make the whole thing. It’s actually pretty ironic.”

With the tiny profits from Heard It All Before, Cullum made his first foray into a studio for the follow-up Pointless Nostalgic. Midway through production of the disc, a mix of chestnuts like “I Can’t Get Started” and “Too Close for Comfort” with Radiohead’s “High and Dry” (included on the U.S. pressing of Twentysomething) and the deliciously tongue-in-cheek original “I Want to Be a Popstar,” entered Alan Bates-no, not the celebrated British actor, but the multitalented music exec who founded Candid Records. “Alan heard it at the nine-track stage,” recalls Cullum, “and said, ‘Oh, look, if you need the money to finish it, I’d love to put it out.’ Well, for someone who just moved to London six months earlier and had hopes of maybe playing Ronnie Scott’s and putting out a proper record within 20 years, it was an opportunity not to be missed.”

Impressive as the album proved to be, it wasn’t entirely fulfilling for Cullum. “At the time of making Pointless Nostalgic, I had come to London to be a jazz musician. I realized afterward that being a jazz musician is only part of what I want, because I’m influenced by so much other music. I’m as influenced by Tom Waits, Bob Dylan, all the new dance music, rock music, the Strokes, Kings of Leon, well-crafted pop music like Avril Lavigne’s and even Britney Spears’ latest single [“Toxic”]. And I want to bring all of that to jazz.

“When I was drawing up the idea for Twentysomething I asked myself, ‘Why can’t I take my friends to a jazz concert? What’s wrong with jazz?’ Well, there’s nothing wrong with jazz itself. Maybe it just needs someone who has as much knowledge of pop and rock music as they do of jazz and can bring all of it together. Jazz is, of course, the perfect place to do it because it’s the only music with a wide enough platform. With jazz, you can play soft, loud, wear a leather jacket, wear a suit, have a mohawk, be polite, swear, be hell-pig ugly-it doesn’t matter. Jazz isn’t just about improvising over chords. Jazz encompasses the ability to do anything. It’s this huge, huge universe to explore.”

Cullum’s refreshingly inclusive attitude may not sit well with jazz purists, but it did find unexpected support from Diana Krall. Praising her as “someone I absolutely adore, I love her new record and think it’s exactly the right thing at the right time because there’s loads of us young pretenders around now trying to be her,” Cullum recalls meeting Krall at Ronnie Scott’s. “I was very young, and remember asking her who she likes. She says, ‘Cole Porter and blah-de-blah’ and names all the jazz people. And I said, ‘Do you like other songwriters like Tom Waits and Bob Dylan and Joni Mitchell?’ She looked at me with amazement and said, ‘Yes, I do!’ I think she was quite surprised to be talking to someone, especially a 15-year-old kid who looked about 12, about that because she only ever gets asked about the other stuff. All those influences are on her new record and have, I think, been with her long before she met Elvis. I also think she’s finally successful enough to do whatever the fuck she wants, and I love that. That’s what I hope for-to make the records I want to make.”

As with Krall, Cullum’s diversity allows him to tap into a far broader audience than most jazz artists. “I hope so,” he nods, “because all I ever want to do is be inclusive. Jazz is my first love. I love Paul Bley and Jack DeJohnette’s solo percussion records, and listen to everything from bebop to melodic jazz. But I hate the exclusivity of it. A lot of jazz musicians thrive on the fact that not a lot of people understand it. That doesn’t work for me. I don’t want to be an outrageous populist, but I do want to give people something they can understand. You know, you play a Radiohead tune and somebody recognizes the chorus and says, ‘Ohhh, great, I love this song’ and then you play a free solo in the middle and they say, ‘Oh my god, where are you going?’ That can really excite people. All of a sudden you’ve got 16-year-olds cheering crazy bass solos!”

Cullum has also got 16-year-olds (and their sixtysomething grandparents) listening to standards in a whole new way, which is, he says, “really the point. Take a tune like ‘Stardust.’ I adore that tune, and play it again and again and again. But I don’t feel I can offer anything new to it at the moment. Maybe someday the penny will drop. So, instead, I get my head inside a tune like ‘I Get a Kick Out of You’ or ‘I Could Have Danced All Night’ and think, ‘Now, this is cool.’ I can play this in front of a rock crowd or I can play this in front of a jazz crowd and it’ll still make sense.

“It is just about making better music. I’ve got my whole life to do it. All I need is a piano and time. That’s really all I give a shit about.” Originally Published