Jamie Cullum’s eclectic, unpredictable approach comes naturally

By Mark Jordan
Tuesday, July 6, 2010

The British pianist-singer-songwriter Jamie Cullum, who performs Sunday at Minglewood Hall, is looking forward to making his first-ever appearance in the Bluff City.

“Anyone who’s into music, Memphis is a bit like going to Jerusalem or something like that,” says Cullum, who arrives here with an ace four-piece band and no setlist. “It’s the Holy Land of rock and roll, soul and blues. You better be good when you go to Memphis because I suspect people around your parts know when somebody is faking it.”

After five critically praised albums, Cullum is most assuredly not faking. The 30-year-old has been praised as the ultimate crossover artist, winning fans on both sides of the Atlantic with a blend of genuine jazz chops and a thoroughly modern pop sensibility. He has been likened to Michael Bublé, Ben Folds Five and Harry Connick Jr., but those comparisons hardly do justice to the genre-bending originality of an artist who can play cutting-edge rock event Coachella and the tradition-bound Newport Jazz Festival both without missing a beat.

“It’s not really my job to categorize myself; that’s your job, I’m afraid,” says Cullum, dismissing an invitation to pigeonhole himself. “I grew up listening to rock and hip hop and electronic music and folk music, heavy metal music as well as the standards and jazz music. I just try to infuse my music with things that I really like. And jazz is a great starting point because it’s all focused on the musicality and the musicianship.”

Cullum’s most recent record, The Pursuit, released last summer on Universal International Records, may be his boldest gambit yet. With a name derived from the Nancy Mitford novel “The Pursuit of Love,” the record’s unabashedly romantic outlook reflects the influence of the artist’s then-girlfriend (now wife), British model and author Sophie Dahl.

“When something that momentous happens, if it’s not an impact on your life as a creative person, you’re either dead inside or wearing a blindfold,” Cullum says of his relationship with Dahl, whom he married in January of this year.

The Pursuit might be the only place you’ll ever find side-by-side contributions from dance-pop queen Rhianna (in the form a cover of her hit “Don’t Stop the Music,” featuring a Michael Jackson sample), Broadway god Steven Sondheim (a version of “Not While I’m Around” from “Sweeney Todd”), and squinty-eyed movie icon Clint Eastwood (the Golden Globe-nominated bonus track “Gran Torino,” which Cullum wrote with the actor and his jazz musician son Kyle for the movie of the same name).

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Cullum says his selection of non-original material for inclusion on his albums and in concerts happens almost by osmosis.

“Often or not these songs that I end up covering end up accidentally beneath my fingers, and when they happen in that way, it’s only natural to include them on the record,” says Cullum. “Live we like to keep it very open, so I’m as likely to play something I heard on the radio that day as I am something from one of my albums. It’s a very unpredictable show.”

With his own material, which makes up the bulk of The Pursuit, Cullum has been honing his unique combination of influences. The epic track “Mixtape” combines Coldplay-style melodies with organic jazz interludes. Meanwhile, a selection like “Music Is Through” finds him incorporating the bent for electronica he developed on his previous effort, Catching Tales.

“It’s very much something that comes natural,” Cullum says of his distinctive mishmash. “A good way to describe me is to say that I was a listener before I was a musician. When you make a record like this, you have to be so careful it doesn’t come over as, ‘Oh, look at all these things I can do.’ You just have to make it all truthful and all real and make sure your voice is the through line that connects all the dots.”

Jamie Cullum with Julian Velard

8 p.m. Sunday. Minglewood Hall, 1555 Madison. Tickets: $33 in advance, $35 day of show, available at the box office, by phone at (866) 609-1744, and online at minglewoodhall.com.

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