Piano Royalty: Jamie Cullum
By: George Varga
It’s unlikely England’s Queen Elizabeth II and the members of veteran heavy-metal band Iron Maiden have a lot in common, apart from their shared nationality and the fact they live in a country where this summer is cold and gray. But when it comes to the genre-leaping music of singer-pianist Jamie Cullum, the queen and the Maidens are of like mind.
“The queen told me my performance was ‘magical,’ and the guys in Iron Maiden said: ‘Nice work. You play that piano like a mad man!'” said an understandably flattered Cullum, who is now embarked on a North American tour.
At 29, this charismatic musician has grown used to attracting a diverse following for his zesty mix of jazz, pop, rock, hip-hop, dance-music and more. His fans also include The Neptunes’ Pharrell Williams, with whom Cullum has recorded, and film icon Clint Eastwood, who teamed with Cullum to compose and record the understated title song for Eastwood’s award-winning 2007 film “Gran Torino.”
Cullum’s new album, “The Pursuit,” features artists as varied as the Count Basie Orchestra and members of Soul Coughing and Beck’s band.
“The commonality between them all is me,” said Cullum, who in 2005 became the first jazz-oriented artist to perform at the Coachella festival in Indio, Calif.
“Of course, a lot of people who listen to big bands have no interest in electronic dance music, but I definitely do. And that’s colored my approach, bringing all these things together. Not to show off, but in my head these things do exist together — and should. Improvisation, groove, tasty chord changes, and then opening it up in an expansive and unpredictable way. Not taking it too seriously, but then taking it very seriously.”
Cullum is hailed as “the biggest-selling British jazz artist ever,” which he is. But as his new album makes clear, he is as inspired by Paul McCartney and Squeeze as he is by such jazz giants as Thelonious Monk and Miles Davis. And while his concerts draw large audiences of enthusiastic young fans who tend to know little about mainstream jazz, he doesn’t regard himself as a musical crusader who is responsible for introducing swing, bebop and other jazz styles to a fresh-faced new audience.
“It’s definitely a privilege and not a responsibility,” Cullum said. “As soon as you treat it as a responsibility, you become a teacher, and young people don’t need another teacher. I don’t always play music a young person would recognize. But by seeing someone close to their own age that they can reference, that’s enough to get them into it. But it’s not my responsibility to carry this music to another generation.”
Cullum was a music fan from an early age. But it wasn’t until he had a series of epiphanies at four very disparate concerts that he realized he had found his life’s calling.
“Everything came together for me in the summer of 1995, when I was 14,” he recalled. “I saw Ben Folds Five, Harry Connick Jr., Herbie Hancock and Radiohead. That was when I started to take music very seriously.”
Cullum is also a big fan of jazz icon Charles Mingus and the late Frank Zappa, whose genre-leaping music set a heady new standard for ambition, intricacy and skewed humor.
“I tend to gravitate to musicians who mix things together that don’t make sense on paper but that end up working quite well,” he noted. “Zappa mixed rock, (jazz) improvisation, heavy metal, classical — and Captain Beefheart! Mingus had this great jazz style that had that gospel ‘church-y’ quality and his music was harder-edged than (Duke) Ellington’s. I like things that don’t fit into one (stylistic) box.”
His biggest inspiration now, though, is singer-songwriter Tom Waits, whose longevity and high quality he hopes to emulate.
“Waits has written some of the most extraordinary songs of the 20th century,” Cullum said. “His is a body of work you can’t deny.”
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