Jamie Cullum: The pursuit of musical adventure

By Paul Freeman

Posted: 07/15/2010

SINGER/songwriter/multi-instrumentalist Jamie Cullum quickly established himself as the biggest-selling British jazz artist of all time. But he wasn’t ready to rest on his laurels. Seeking to hurl himself out of his comfort zone, he has released his first album in four years, “The Pursuit.” The collection includes not only Cole Porter and Stephen Sondheim tunes, but Cullum originals that range from swingin’ to contemplative to house-dance beats.

After enjoying worldwide success with his previous two albums, “Catching Tales” and “Twentysomething,” Cullum, 30, took his time with the new recording.

“I had quite a big break between ‘Catching Tales’ and ‘Pursuit,'” Cullum said. “It was quite a challenge, reminding people that you’re there and what you can do and coming back. I wanted to make sure the album really made a big statement.”

He sought to reinvent himself. “I’d made a few albums and I felt I’d been growing with every album. I’ve never been one of those people that’s obviously trying to make the same record twice. But I just felt like I needed to take a leap with myself and sonically, to try and make it sound more like a 21st-century record, really.

“Just a bit more presence, maybe a few more bells and whistles, as well. But without sacrificing the live sound. So, just to sonically make it happy to sit alongside lots of stuff I listen to now, but keeping that kind of foot in the world of that classic stuff that I like.”

The album showcases his versatility, yet Cullum managed to tie it all tie together. “I’m very much a record collector. I have been very interested in various types of music, throughout my whole life. So those things sit alongside one another in my head, very comfortably. But whether they would all work on a record is another thing.

“So, I guess it was all down to careful sequencing, letting the story unfold, with regard to putting the record together. If you’re going to have things as diverse as the first track, which is essentially a big-band jazz track, and the final track, which is very much an electronic kind of dance thing, you don’t want to seem as though you’re just trying to, ‘Oh, look how many things I can do, kind of thing.’ You want it to exist in a musical universe that seems cohesive. There are tricks you can do. But just believing in it and doing it all with a sense of truth, that’s the most important thing.”

The album’s title came from “The Pursuit of Love,” by Nancy Mitford, a favorite book of Cullum’s fiancee, model/author Sophie Dahl. But it also has deeper meaning.

“This album definitely felt like a pursuit. It was not an easy road. I just like the analogy of what a musician is like, to your life. It reminds you that you never really reach the finish line. You’re always kind of searching and pursuing things.”

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Cullum kept busy between albums, including collaborating with Clint Eastwood on the Golden Globe-nominated song “Gran Torino,” from the film of the same name.

“Being able to work alongside such greatness gave me an immense, renewed confidence in myself, that what I was doing was valuable. To be given props by Clint Eastwood, it’s validation from the highest seat in the world of creativity.”

Cullum has worked with a broad spectrum of artists, including the Count Basie Orchestra, Kylie Minogue, Will.i.am and Burt Bacharach. Collaborations expand his musical palette.

“Even if you don’t come away with something to show for it, you can always gain something from the experience, really.

“It’s such a random thing, making music and writing songs, that just to get any kind of validation, observing someone else doing it, seeing that they work equally as strangely as you do, it’s good to know you’re not the only freak out there.”

As a teen, Cullum was a heavy metal fan. But jazz eventually lured him. “It was the improvisational aspects, really. When I heard jazz, I realized that they were the greatest virtuosos that I’d heard. I was listening to a lot of guitar music and I heard Wes Montgomery and Django Reinhardt and thought, ‘Oh, my God! These guys are playing faster than Steve Vai and Eddie Van Halen put together!’

“After that, it was the focus on the musician, the spontaneity and the knowledge of the musician. It wasn’t about the way you looked. It wasn’t about being part of any scene. Rather it was about whether you could play. And as a shy, confused teenager, that made a lot of sense to me.”

Spontaneity is a big part of Cullum’s live shows, which the Mountain Winery audience will discover on Tuesday.

“Every night is different. I mean, you do get into a rhythm, when you’re on a long tour like this one, but there’s definitely a different slant to every night, musicians running around, wondering what the hell is going on. Keeps it interesting, you know?”

The musicians Cullum admires are those who never stop growing and exploring.

“Totally, yeah, from Miles Davis to Ben Folds to Beck to Bjork to Madlib to Herbie Hancock. I really admire the careers of people like Elvis Costello, all these people who never sit still. Tom Waits. Always challenging yourself. And putting the musicianship and the joy of what you do above everything else.”

He views his own music as still being in its infancy.

“I’m 5 percent of the way there. I’ve got a long way to go. That’s part of the fun. It’s what gets you up in the morning.”

So Cullum continues to bravely move forward, musically. “If you’re not taking risks, then you’re off to Vegas, I guess.”


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