Setting a new (jazz) standard

Ask Jamie Cullum how he wound up recording with the Count Basie Orchestra, and he’ll tell you that it was because they happened to have an afternoon free.

“ I wasn’t really planning to use much big band,” he says of his just-released fifth album, The Pursuit. “But I came up with an idea for an arrangement of Just One of Those Things, and I’d actually met the Basie band, so I thought, God, this could be amazing. Could we afford it for this record?”

Then, in a bit of serendipity, the singer and pianist happened to be in New York when the Basie band was finishing sessions at Tony Bennett’s studio in New Jersey. “We knew someone who knew someone, got in touch with them, and asked, ‘Could we bust in on the last few hours of your studio time and record a track with you?’” he says. “So I turned up, and we recorded it live there and then. We did about three takes, I think, and the second take is the one that’s on the record.”

If that hot kid meets old pros story sounds a bit old-fashioned, the music is anything but. Not only does Cullum’s arrangement goose the Cole Porter melody with an itchy bass vamp, but he’s rewritten Porter’s intro, jettisoning couplets about Abelard and Héloïse in favour of a posthangover apology that rhymes “the last six hours are a haze” with “my motor skills are out of phase.” Traditional, it’s not.

But that’s Cullum all over. Although he started his career like many a jazz singer/pianist, playing club dates and cutting an album of standards with his combo, his career took a dramatic turn with the release of his third album, Twentysomething.

Matching Lerner and Loewe chestnuts with tunes by Radiohead and the Neptunes, it established Cullum as a jazz musician aware of tradition but anchored in the here and now. A Top 5 hit in his native Britain, the album turned the young jazz man into a genuine pop star. Cullum wears the role well, thanks in large part to his outsized charm and charismatic stage presence, and has since augmented his public image to include an equally famous fiancée, the writer (and ex-model) Sophie Dahl. Indeed, the title of his new album comes from one of Dahl’s favourite books, Nancy Mitford’s The Pursuit of Love.

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But if Cullum’s success made him a poster boy for jazz crossover, it also led many a mouldy fig to dismiss his music as jazz for juniors.

Cullum shrugs off the criticism as “obviously an assumption rather than the reality. I mean, anyone who comes to my shows will see that it’s really including people across the board.” While that was certainly true of his stop in Toronto, during the jazz festival, it was equally true that the crowd was bigger and younger than the one Dave Brubeck drew.

Then again, why shouldn’t it be? Cullum isn’t much interested in presenting jazz as the past recaptured, and brings the same sass and sizzle to a song regardless of whether it’s a Rihanna cover or a Richard Rodgers standard, because he’s equally crazy about both.

“It’s often not cool for a guy who’s supposed to be playing the standards to really get into that whole world [of dance music], but it’s something I can’t avoid,” he says, over the phone from a tour bus in Belgium. “It’s very much a part of me, and I think this is the first record where I’ve really been able to explore that.”

A self-confessed “music geek,” Cullum thinks of himself as a listener as much as a musician. “I’ve always been a listener,” he says, “and listening to music colours every second of my existence.” Obviously, that listening includes a lot of jazz, but also quite a bit of electronic and dance music. “I’m obviously very much connected to music played by real musicians,” he says. “But I’m also totally blown away by amazing programmed music that throws you about the dance floor. I listen to that a lot, whether it’s Madlib or Timbaland or Pharrell and the Neptunes, house music, drum and bass music, Massive Attack, Portishead.…”

It’s no surprise, then, that the song he’s most proud of having written for the new album is musical love letter called Mixtape. “This album really does do justice to the breadth of my influences,” he says. “That’s what Mixtape is all about. It’s about old-school, undying love for music, and listening to music, and how it impacts on our lives and our love lives.”

Jamie Cullum performs at Massey Hall in Toronto tomorrow, and at the Commodore Ballroom in Vancouver on March 20.

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