In concert, Jamie Cullum seems irrepressibly impish — and not just because he’s short and cute. No, it’s because he’s a whirl of energy, banging away at his piano (or any other surface), jumping on his instrument, cracking jokes, dancing. … The guy oozes so much personality, you can’t help but fall in love with him.
But of course, none of that would matter if he didn’t have chops; he’s a piano dynamo who also has a great voice and a winning way of mixing jazz and pop. His appreciation for the classics and ability to write witty originals simply clinches the deal.
Americans started getting to know Cullum in 2004, when he released his first Verve album, “Twentysomething,” the follow-up to his indie releases “Pointless Nostalgic” and “Heard it All Before.” “Catching Tales” came in 2005. “Austin City Limits” aired a Cullum segment in 2005. In 2006, he released “Live at Ronnie Scott’s,” and in 2007, “In the Mind of Jamie Cullum.” With all those albums and accompanying tours, he has managed to hit a lot of ears. He also scored a Clint Eastwood film, “Gran Torino,” and earned a Golden Globe nomination for the title song, co-written with Eastwood.
Yet, as he talks about his new album, “The Pursuit,” he’s still not sure whether he’s popular — he’s not even aware of exactly what level of success he has reached, particularly in the States. He hasn’t dominated U.S. record charts (except for the Billboard Jazz Chart) or gotten any love from Grammy voters, but when asked whether that concerns him, he responds, “I always measure it [like this]: … If a bunch of people are coming to your show, you go to two great radio stations, do a couple of live sets, they’re playing your record and you come home and you haven’t lost money … to me, just the fact that I have the luxury of coming to the States and I’m able to play a sold-out tour, I tour on a tour bus, we have a good time — to me, that feels like a success.”
He says it would be great if his popularity continues to grow, but whether it does or not, he hopes to be playing “until they have to wheel me into a home.”
He turned 30 in August, so he’s got a few years before that happens. And he just got married in January, to model and author Sophie Dahl. They’re living in his London flat. He also recently built his own studio, named Terrified Studios — so called because, he says, he’s so technophobic, he’s terrified when he’s there.
It’s probably an exaggeration, however, as songs on this album, a couple of which qualify as techno music, prove. He’s also an admitted music geek who spent part of a year off working as a DJ and collaborating with other musicians, including his brother Ben, the guy responsible for turning him on to jazz.
Ben and neighbor Karl Gordon did the programming on the “The Pursuit” song, “We Run Things.” Ben also co-wrote the finale, “Music is Through.”
Jamie Cullum likes having opportunities to experiment, he said, “because eventually, those slightly more esoteric things … lead to a song like ‘We Run Things,’ which touches on that side of what I do … and allows me to touch this album with that kind of sound without it taking over the entire thing of what people recognize as being me.”
“That gives more facets to the album,” he said.
The “facets” range from Cole Porter’s “Just One of Those Things” and Stephen Sondheim’s “Not While I’m Around” (from “Sweeney Todd”) to “If I Ruled the World” and Rihanna’s “Don’t Stop the Music,” as well as his own love ballad “Love Ain’t Gonna Let You Down.” The album title, in fact, comes from the book “The Pursuit of Love” by Nancy Mitford. Cullum observes that we spend our lives in pursuit of love or other goals.
For this album, one of his goals was getting out of his comfort zone and injecting a little terror, actually. He even went to L.A. to record with players he’d never worked with before, instead of relying on his familiar sidemen. His collaborators included members of Beck’s band and the horn section Michael Jackson used on “Thriller.”
He would, of course, love to collaborate with Beck himself someday. Like Beck, Cullum is a player who effortlessly crosses between genres and doesn’t pay attention to boundaries — except to break through them.
“We Run Things” is a case in point. It’s almost a mashup of jazz, pop, electronica, Brazilia and other influences, and it works. And right after it comes the Sondheim ballad. That’s the kind of jumping around Cullum does musically — not to mention physically.
“I try to channel the energy and make it part of the performance,” he said, adding, “You know, it’s never a construction; it’s never something that happens because I plan it that way. It’s always the moment that takes over.”
And the exploding piano on the album cover? That’s real, too.
“We did a proper explosion,” he said, and yes, he was “right there.” But, like all of his pursuits, the result was worth it.