The jazz swinger

JOHN SHAND
April 16, 2010 – 12:01AM

British pianist-singer Jamie Cullum slips between genres as comfortably as he croons.

Jamie Cullum’s fizzing live persona is no act. His conversation pops and sparks just as much as he dashes between ideas. When we speak, the singer-pianist is in St Louis on a US tour and has just finished a soundcheck. For most musicians, this is a cherished downtime before the show. Not Cullum, who leaps on to the idea of how weird it is when people are surprised that his output should teeter between pop and swing. After all, any jazz musician under 70 has grown up hearing rock.

“Two of my favourite jazz acts are Australian: [the now-defunct] Triosk and the Necks,” Cullum enthuses.

“They are people who clearly spend as much time listening to post-rock and electronica as they do to [late jazz pianist] Oscar Peterson. I love all that.”

In his early teens, Cullum, now 30, latched on to Nirvana and Soundgarden before expanding his horizons. “I got into people like Jeff Buckley and got into a lot of those tortured, dead guitarists: Nick Drake, Hendrix,” he says.

“Then I started getting into drum and bass and hip-hop. I got into record collecting and sampling. I heard Slum Village and bands like that and they were kind of name-checking Lee Morgan, Miles Davis and Herbie Hancock.

“I heard Ben Folds and got back into the piano that way. I heard Herbie and it all collided and by the time I was 17, 18, I was in a mixture of rock bands, pop bands and jazz bands all at the same time.”

He also managed to sneak in a first-class honours degree in English literature and film studies even as he was releasing his first album, Heard It All Before. But it was the follow-up, Pointless Nostalgic, that turned some important heads, including Michael Parkinson’s, who put Cullum on his top-rating television show.

A record company bidding war ensued and the third album, Twentysomething, catapulted the singer into being the biggest-selling jazz artist in Britain – ever.

But Cullum was not going to be kept in a retro-swing box, mixing self-penned pop songs with jazz standards; a formula he continues on his effervescent latest album, The Pursuit.

He has also gained a reputation for sizzling live shows, including much leaping about at the piano.

“The live side is where you develop your ideas and you blow them apart,” Cullum says. “The studio is where you refine it and you create a blueprint for going out on the road.”

He finds each process pleasurable. “It’s very, very hard to beat the excitement of creating something new in the studio and being able to refine it and getting the rough mix of a CD and playing it in the car on the way back from the studio.

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“But last night at our show in Nashville, 3000 people were pogoing around, clapping their hands and singing every word to every single one of these new songs that I’ve written and that is also hard to beat.

If they’re just sitting there and clapping their hands politely, it’s fine but I do prefer it when they freak the f— out.”

On a quieter note, Cullum contemplates pursuing writing in the future. “My only worry is I’m now married to someone who writes novels [Sophie Dahl] and thinking you might be able to write a novel one day is like thinking you’d be able to build a house.

“It’s not something you can just do; you need to write three novels and throw them away before you can write a real one . . .

“What I like to take from literature is that people think nothing about being able to step into another person’s shoes to write about them and understand them. But people always can’t believe that you would write songs from anything but your own perspective.”

Ask Cullum about artists with whom he’d like to collaborate and he gushes names from seemingly every musical sphere. “I really love almost everything Beck’s done, I love Bjork, I love Herbie Hancock, Tom Waits, Jonny Greenwood from Radiohead.

“I’d love to sing a duet with Beyonce. I’d love to work with the LA producer Madlib. I’d love to hook up with the Necks, the Bad Plus, Jack DeJohnette, the Brodsky Quartet, Elvis Costello.”

Cullum sure likes to keep his options open. “The artists I admire all sound like themselves, even if they’re making music that sounds very different, whether that’s Beck or Bjork,” he says. “Your voice should sing through, whatever the style is that you’re making.”

JAMIE CULLUM

Monday and Tuesday, 8.30pm, The Basement, Circular Quay, 9251 2797, sold out.

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