By Jenn Sutkowski/Mercury
Jamie Cullum is an occasionally wooing crooner, but his onstage showmanship at the piano is more electrifying than someone like Michael Bublé, to whom he’s been compared. Categorizing Cullum is difficult, as he’s constantly pushing his sound and performance in new directions, citing influences such as Herbie Hancock, Ben Folds and Radiohead. When not playing originals, he covers everyone from The Cure to Cole Porter to Lady Gaga.
Cullum’s dynamic fifth album, “The Pursuit,” which starts with a bombastic big band cover of “Just One Of Those Things” and moves to disco-tinted originals such as “Music Is Through,” features an appropriately exploding piano on its cover.
In a way, Cullum is a music filter, listening to everything from “very left field hip hop to electronic music to jazz music, to classical to very hard rock to kind of noise, garage rock, psych rock,” he says. “There are little shards that kind of creep their way into my music. One of the things I think that defines me is that I was a listener before I was a musician. I was a record collector and a record geek long before I was a musician and in some ways I think that colors me more than being a musician.”
During Cullum’s early days, he would play in rock bands where they would “rehearse the music and play it over and over again until we got it right and then go perform it the same way.” Eventually he moved toward following his instincts onstage and “not over-thinking things too much.” Seeing Harry Connick Jr. when he was 16 years old helped influence that shift.
“There was someone who was playing piano like all the great jazz musicians,” Cullum says. “And he was up there playing like a rock star and I thought, ‘Oh my God, it is possible,’ you know? It was the first time I’d really seen someone bring those things together when I was a young man. I’d previously been to like 100 rock concerts, seen every kind of guitar band there was at that point. Here was something that I saw that was quite different.”
Though Cullum is primarily a jazz pianist and singer, his career path seems potentially less like that of a Brad Mehldau — who virtuosically covers Radiohead, for example — and closer to someone like Mike Patton, in my opinion, whose work since Faith No More, as Cullum says, is “not just meaninglessly jumping all over the shop but bringing a certain vibe to different projects.”
“The Mike Patton example is complimentary for me. The fact that you even brought it up makes me smile. I’m a huge fan of his,” Cullum says. “You know I’m a huge, huge admirer of Brad Mehldau, but as a piano player and as a jazz artist, that to me is like looking at a Picasso. It’s a different world to me. I’ve never been trained, I’ve never played classical music in my life, I can’t read music, I can’t write music. I very much do everything by ear and by feel. I’m really someone who grew up playing kind of Kurt Cobain songs on the guitar, who discovered he likes Herbie Hancock and brought all those things together and felt my way through it by trial and error. What I do is a lot more ramshackle and jam-band-y in that sense.”
Cullum feels that one reporter’s statement that he is “jazz’s mainstream hope” is “a wildly misguided statement.”
“There is so much amazing great mainstream jazz hopes out there,” he says. “It would be a statement made by someone who has no idea what’s going on in jazz.
“I’m a tiny drop in the ocean. There’s loads of amazing stuff out there. It just needs the right exposure.”
He laughs when asked if he’ll play a Gaga tune during his Newport Jazz Festival performances Friday and Saturday.
“The Newport Jazz Festival has a whole other kind of level of intrigue to it. So I’m going to have to go out there with my music armor on and I’m looking forward to pulling out a few surprises, so let’s see.”
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