By Christopher Toh, TODAY | Posted: 19 November 2009 1336 hrs 1 of 1
True story: My wife and children were in the lift of Hong Kong’s Grand Hyatt when, according to her, “a guy with messy hair” walked in brandishing his melodica and performed a tune for my son. He then later let my son plonk out a few notes on said instrument.
“It was nice of him,” she later told me. “Even though he looked like a hobbit.”
I thought nothing of it until said “hobbit” entered the hotel bar for our interview. Yes, as it turned out, it was Jamie Cullum – the British jazz musician who’s dating Brit model Sophie Dahl – who’s apparently inseparable from his melodica.
“I carry this wherever I go,” he said about his instrument, which unlike most conventional melodicas has a special output jack so that he can plug it into an amplifier or effects racks if he so wishes.
“I can use it with a wah pedal, a delay pedal or distortion pedal and make the most amazing sounds,” he enthused.
HE DIGS DANCE AND BRITNEY…
Making amazing sounds is something the 30-year-old loves to do. He’s got a new album, The Pursuit, out in stores now, but more on that later.
Jamie’s last album was released four years ago and, since then, he’s made some electronic dance music with his older brother Ben and turned up at places to DJ with a box of vinyl from his extensive collection. Thanks to an introduction from Clint Eastwood’s jazz bass-playing son Kyle, Cullum also worked on the soundtrack to the movie Gran Torino, picking up a Golden Globe nomination along the way. He’s also contributed to the soundtrack of the John Cusack film Grace Is Gone.
So although his musical roots are steeped in jazz, he’s really open to all kinds of music. “If Britney does a good song, I’m there. If Sugababes has a good song, I’m there. If Tom Waits releases a quadruple album of B-sides, I’m there.
“From German electro to Appalachian folk music, I like listening to all that. I’m a music nerd. That’s the best way to describe me. I go to record fairs endlessly. I’ll move my schedule so that I can go to these fairs and find what I’ve been looking for.”
It’s not just records either. His other passion is collecting musical instruments. “I have a lot of vintage keyboards, organs, Farfisas, Hammonds, Vox Continentals, Wurlitzers, Fender Rhodes … I’d like to have an even better record collection and better instruments.
“I told you I was a nerd.”
… AND ALL THAT JAZZ
At the moment, the nerd is promoting The Pursuit. Whether or not the titular chase is his romance with Dahl is anybody’s guess, but fans will also note that the 12 songs – ranging from standards like Cole Porter’s Just One Of Those Things to his jazzy remake of Rihanna’s Don’t Stop The Music to the dance-influenced Music Is Through – is about as varied as an international buffet line.
Needless to say, critics are in two polarising camps about this. But it doesn’t matter, said Jamie. “I just produce something that I think is better than my last one. That means people aren’t always going to like it as much.
“And I know it sounds pompous, but if you’re beholden to how many records you sell or who likes it, then you’re not going to make the best music.”
And, yes, remakes are just as important to him as his original tracks. “Nowadays, reinterpretation is seen as a gimmick, something to fill Side B of your single, a filler,” he said. “But for me, it’s central to what I do. For jazz musicians, it’s important to expand on themes set by someone else. From as early as the 1930s, you had jazz musicians like Charlie Parker doing interpretations of pop tunes of the time.
“This is very much a part of what I do, and it’s kind of updating that tradition to reinvent.”
Another jazz tradition is the live performance. And to keep it as free-form as the genre, Jamie said he’s never ever planned what happens at his shows.
“I never have a set list. I just go in and do what comes and the band follows me. Nowadays, you go to a show and it’s a big production and they play the same set and say the same things. I don’t mind watching, but it’s not what I do best. Winging it, that’s what I do.
“Sometimes it fails; but people will see something that they don’t see very often these days: A very improvised, free-wheeling show where many different things can happen.”
Similarly, while he knows he’ll be touring in the near future, don’t ask him for details. “We’re talking about playing in Singapore again, but I’m not really sure what’s been planned. I’m pretty much an in-the-moment kind of guy. I’m thinking more about this cup of tea and what I’m having for lunch, really.
“I struggle to remember where I’m going to be tomorrow!”
One thing he does know, however, is that no matter what, music will play a major part in his life.
“It’s not something that’s ever left me,” he said. “People need music in their lives. Music will define what a 13-year-old kid does at school and how they dress; people need music for when they’re sad, happy, at a party. That’s the one thing I know.
“My goals are quite simple: Get better at the piano, be a better songwriter, be a better singer. As long as those things get better every year, I’m happy.”
Well, with a model girlfriend and five hit albums in tow, we’d say Jamie’s pursuit of happiness has definitely been successful.
The Pursuit is out now in stores.