If there’s a middle ground between Michael Buble and Ben Folds, then that territory might certainly be claimed by British singer/piano-man Jamie Cullum.
His latest album, The Pursuit, opens with a high-energy, fairly reverent take on Cole Porter’s “Just One of Those Things,” but also includes an interpretation of Rihanna’s “Don’t Stop the Music” and his somewhat subdued original ballads. If that makes the singer hard to categorize, Cullum — who performs Tuesday at Hard Rock Live — doesn’t care.
The old lines between jazz and pop don’t exist for him. Nor does he look at himself as some kind of hip jazz ambassador for a new generation.
“I think it’s an irrelevant question,” Cullum says of the traditional boundary lines. “It’s something you have to think about more if you write about music. If you play the music, if music is your goal, you don’t really think about it too much.”
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Instead, Cullum thinks of himself as the latest in a line of genre benders that also would include Herbie Hancock, Miles Davis and progressive bassist Jaco Pastorius. Growing up, he listened to all of them, along with a healthy diet of music outside the jazz realm.
“I didn’t grow up just listening to jazz,” he says. “I grew up loving Ben Folds, the Beatles, hip-hop and folk music, Hendrix and AC/DC. All sorts of things. I’m just trying to make music to please myself. If that means I get a lot of pleasure out of Justin Timberlake and Rihanna, and also Keith Jarrett and Thelonius Monk, then so be it.”
Cullum’s approach comes from his early days as a music lover, a self-described “record geek.”
“I think of myself as a listener before I am a musician,” says Cullum, 30. “I used to love to go to record fairs and when I heard a sample on a track, I was always interested in where it came from. I was looking for interesting records, things I didn’t know anything about.’
That curiosity lead him to New York punk bands and folk and Nick Drake, among others. He found a connection between Hancock’s influential 1973 funk-fusion hybrid Head Hunters and the drum-and-bass music that he and his brother, Ben, had been into at the time. He followed the bread crumbs from Harry Connick Jr. to Monk and Count Basie.
“I didn’t quite get it, but I realized it was there,” he says.
On The Pursuit, Cullum’s toned down, yet intense, version of “Don’t Stop the Music” is his vision of what Hancock or Monk might have done with the song.
He considers the approach “not a million miles away from ‘Lady be Good,’ which was a popular song of the day when Charlie Parker used it as a springboard, as a platform to go to new places.”
In Cullum’s case, the Rihanna cover unfolded serendipitously.
“The secret is that you never choose the cover song, the cover chooses you,” he says. “You have the radio on in the background and a song by accident gets under your skin. By the end of the day, you love it.
“That’s what happened with ‘Don’t Stop the Music.’ I was playing a couple chords trying to write something else, it just came out and it was like, ‘Oh that’s cool.’ It’s very much shooting from the hip.”
Cullum, who keeps an upright piano next to the refrigerator in his kitchen, called his album The Pursuit for a reason:
“That’s the great thing about music to me, it’s never-ending. You never feel like you’ve done it all. I remember Wynton Marsalis talking once about how learning an instrument is such a great life lesson.
“It’s just like life itself, you never reach the end of what you need to know or what you can learn. What a great thing to apply to your life.”