Riding on a bit of fright

By: NAILA FRANCIS
The Intelligencer
When it came to making his latest album, Jamie Cullum decided to challenge himself in ways that felt distinctly – and refreshingly – uncomfortable.

Jamie Cullum caught an unusual break.

The hip jazz-pop troubadour was all set to release his fifth album, “The Pursuit,” in early 2009, when Clint Eastwood came calling.

It wasn’t the first time the London native had worked with the film icon.

In 2007, he appeared on the soundtrack to the John Cusack film “Grace is Gone,” which featured an original score by Eastwood. Cullum, who had connected with the filmmaker through his son Kyle, a jazz musician, sang the title track.

When Eastwood invited him to play at the Monterey Jazz Festival in California the following year, Cullum was pitched another project: Eastwood wanted him to write an original song for the closing credits to “Gran Torino,” the 2008 drama, which he directed and starred in, about a disgruntled Korean War veteran’s reluctant friendship with a Hmong teenager and his family.

Eastwood already had the music roughly worked out, and Cullum helped him flesh out the tune with Kyle in addition to writing the lyrics. The resulting song, “Gran Torino,” which he and Eastwood performed as a duet, earned them a Golden Globe nomination for Best Original Song.

“Starting with Clint Eastwood is like your first meal being caviar,” says Cullum, of his debut experience writing for film. “I’m a huge film fan and film buff, so I definitely would like to do more of that, but I’m not quite sure where to go next.”

Working on the soundtrack was definitely a career boost for the 30-year-old artist, but it also afforded him another unexpected opportunity.

“It’s very rare you get the chance to have perspective on an album before it’s released. Because my album release was somewhat delayed by my being involved with the Clint Eastwood film and the record company being not quite ready to pull it together when it was ready to be released, I had the rare chance to listen to the record before it was released,” says Cullum.

In doing so, he found that some of the ideas he’d been gathering for new songs throughout that time period were just the antidote to lighten up what originally was a much darker album, with most of those songs written between a break-up and the start of a new relationship with model-turned-author Sophie Dahl, whom Cullum married earlier this year.

And so “The Pursuit,” which hit stores Tuesday, is, according to Cullum, his most sonically adventurous album to date. From the cool, big band reworking of Cole Porter’s “Just One of Those Things,” which kicks off the album and was recorded with the Count Basie Orchestra in Tony Bennett’s New Jersey studio, to the extended house club cut, “Music is Through,” which concludes the disc, he proves deliberately restless.

A primary penchant for pop songs with a jazz influence is still evident, but Cullum dabbles here in a broader palette, with traces of Latin swing, indie rock, trip-hop and more from his admittedly eclectic tastes percolating through the 12-song collection of covers and originals. He even includes a sultry, jazz-inflected cover of the Rihanna favorite “Please Don’t Stop the Music,” a track added in that reflective, post-Eastwood period.

“It’s very subconscious,” he says, of his gravitation to certain cover songs. “There’s a lot of great songs out there, but I’m not going to do every one of them. Often times, I’ll be sitting at the piano kind of jamming away in much the same way I’m sitting there trying to write a song and then the lyrics or melody to another song I know will happen over those chords. When it happens in that organic, unforced way, I know I’ve got a winner.”

Much of the creative freedom embraced on “The Pursuit” comes from the necessary break he took after touring for two years behind “Catching Tales,” his follow-up to his Universal Records debut “Twentysomething,” which, when released in 2003, made him the best-selling jazz artist in Britain’s history (he also released two albums – “Heard It All Before” and “Pointless Nostalgic” – before being signed to Universal).

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In his year off, Cullum collaborated with other artists, played in other bands and made dance music with his brother Ben, a musician and record producer who lives next door to him in northwest London’s Kensal Green. The song “Music is Through” is actually a track from one of their DJ sets.

“I was performing it in Ibiza with him for a few years and I thought, ‘There has to be a way to get it on the album,’ ” says Cullum, who performs tonight at a sold-out Keswick Theatre in Glenside. “That’s always been an area of interest in music for me. I’ve often gone to lots of parties and dance places to hear that type of music, and my brother and I started writing music for his DJ sets so we can perform them live.”

When he felt sufficiently recharged, he wanted to shake things up for his next album. After working with producer Stewart Levine on both “Twentysomething” and “Catching Tales,” he decided to record “The Pursuit” in Los Angeles with Greg Wells (Katy Perry, OneRepublic).

“Of course, it sounds so cliched to say I needed to challenge myself, but + I was getting to a place where I was so familiar with the people I was working with, I thought it would benefit me to do something where I felt a bit of fright,” he says, noting he was also adamant the album not be recorded in London. “I wasn’t positive it was the right move in the first few weeks – I think that was all part of the being-frightened part – but it did spur me on to greater heights.

“The main part of the vision was really to try and do justice to my influences this time. I don’t think it’s a surprise to anyone to know that I grew up in rock bands as much as jazz bands, and with hip-hop and electronic music. I just felt it was a good time for me to embrace these other styles I had and play and use the textures that these other genres had given me in the music that I was making.”

There also is a perhaps more subtle influence on the disc, though Cullum isn’t shy about referencing it. The happiness he’s found with Dahl, whom he met in 2007 when they sang together at a breast cancer awareness fundraiser, has also been artistically liberating. His wife, he notes, inspires him in every way possible.

“I think that should be the case with anyone that falls in love,” he says. “And obviously in the context of actually being two people who create and make stuff – she writes and I’m making music – it’s constantly inspiring to be around someone who’s writing and creating and struggling day-to-day with the same kind of being-inspired-or-not-inspired problems.”

Dahl actually sings backing vocals on the song “Mixtape,” a pop-rock ode to the favorite-song compilations traded between lovers, and Cullum wrote the ballad “Love Ain’t Gonna Let You Down” while in the throes of falling for her.

Typically one to throw a joke into his original love songs, he offers this one with pure, affecting sentiment.

“It’s really a song that kind of says it for me,” he says. “I’ve never shied away from getting too personal, but this is definitely the first time a song has written itself.”

Jamie Cullum performs tonight at the Keswick Theatre, Easton Road and Keswick Avenue, Glenside. Imelda May opens. Show time: 8 p.m. Tickets: sold out. Information: 215-572-7650; www.keswicktheatre.com.

March 05, 2010 08:50 AM

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