The pursuit of adaptiveness

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SINATRA in sneakers. The Jamie Oliver of jazz. Two of the monikers Jamie Cullum earned when the diminutive, London-bred multi-instrumentalist found worldwide fame.

It would be his third album, Twentysomething, released late in 2003, with its mix of standards and jazz-flavoured pop and hip-hop covers, that would get him there. And for a time, Cullum and his jazz-styled covers of songs by artists such as Radiohead and the Neptunes felt like a breath of fresh air. Cullum was flavour of the month.

”It was an incredibly fun time,” he says. ”It seemed to never end. I didn’t get a lot of sleep. I was working really hard but also partying a lot as well.”

Tellingly, he has released just two albums since: 2005’s Catching Tales and a new offering, The Pursuit.

Next week, he launches the latter at St Kilda’s National Theatre.

At the start of the last decade, Cullum, now 30, was a musical jack-of-all-trades. He financed the recording of his debut Heard it all Before from his work as a session player, music teacher and, yes, wedding singer.

”There’s no way I thought it was leading to all this,” he says. ”My ambition was to make a living from music. Wedding singing was about 10 per cent of it. The rest was playing guitar, drums and piano in other people’s bands. Rock, hip-hop, pop groups. I even played in AC/DC and James Brown covers bands.”

It was always going to be difficult to replicate Twentysomething’s once-in-a-career success. Still, Catching Tales was viewed as a speedbump.

”It still sold more than a million copies,” he says, defiantly. ”It was a different sound, yes, but for what I wanted from it, it was a great success. In Australia and the UK it was written about as a failure but in every other country it outsold Twentysomething.”

Still, after two years touring the release, Cullum decided to take a break. He threw himself into a variety of low-key, philanthropic projects. Mostly, he jammed with mates, watched football, went to gigs and hung out at his local.

”You can be on a treadmill and make music that speaks to commercial ideals rather than your passion and own ideals,” he says. ”I surrounded myself with music for 18 months, just not my own.”

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By late 2007, Cullum believed he had completed his fifth album. However, his label shelved it, deeming it too late in the year to release. ”I was pissed off about it,” he concedes. Still, the gap in the schedule allowed him to accept an invitation from Clint Eastwood to score his film Gran Torino.

”It was utterly, utterly surreal in theory,” he says. ”But once you’re there, he’s just a cool, laid-back guy. It was not awkward. He plays music and knows a lot about it.”

The Pursuit is now finally in stores. It boasts a new band of players and a mildly divergent sound.

”I was trying to embrace a 21st-century sound without ruining what I had before,” he says.

As well as the customary cover (this time, it’s Rihanna’s Don’t Stop the Music), it also contains his first self-composed, unadulterated love song, Love Ain’t Gonna Let You Down, dedicated to his wife, former supermodel Sophie Dahl. ”It’s the most personal song I’ve written,” he says. ”I wanted to write a classic love song. Something that could have been written in the past 50 years and not sound out of place in 1960. It was a pure expression of love.”

As for his shows, expect the unexpected. ”It changes every night,” he says. ”It’s no set-list, no plan. We just get up and play. It will be as sweaty and mad as it always is.”

Jamie Cullum plays the National Theatre, St Kilda, on April 16.

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