Jamie Cullum's crossing over

UK pop-jazz crossover artist Jamie Cullum brings an edgy appeal to a clean cut genre.

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Describing Jamie Cullum as the UK Michael Bublé would do a disservice to the English musician and grossly understate his undeniable talents. Sure, both men are the sexy stars of modern pop jazz, but the similarities end there, Bublé's swinging Frank Sinatra charm a sharp contrast to Cullum's wild Jerry Lee Lewis appeal.

Cullum sings, beatboxes and plays piano, among other instruments, and while his music is rooted in jazz, he draws on alt-rock, trip hop, electronica, piano pop and hip-hop influences, and incorporates classic standards, showtunes and modern-day numbers into his repertoire of original songs. Live, he improvises setlists, delivers fiery, dynamic performances like a rock 'n' roll frontman and brings an edge to the wholesomeness many associate with the pop-jazz genre.

The 30-year-old artist self-released his debut full-length in 1999; by 2006, he had major label support, four LPs behind him — two claiming Top 10 spots on the UK album charts — and a loyal legion of international fans.

Cullum hasn't quite broken into the U.S. market, but he can fill 2,000-plus seat venues like Ruth Eckerd Hall. His fifth and latest disc, 2009's The Pursuit, is primed for some more American attention with its deft fusion of the old and new, something he's known for but does particularly well on this album.

Produced by Greg Wells (Pink, Rufus Wainwright), The Pursuit includes nine Cullum originals and five covers, from the buoyant piano stomp of his first single, "I'm All Over It," to his made-for-the-bedroom lounge-and-groove take on Rihanna's dance hit, "Don't Stop The Music," to his tastefully electro-embellished arrangement of the West End's "If I Ruled The World." All showcase Cullum's buttery velvet croon and songwriting chops as well as his eclectic tastes and influences.

I got the chance to chat with Cullum from his home in England last week while he was on a brief break from touring. Among other topics, we discussed his unstructured performance style, The Pursuit, and his recent debut on reality TV.

Creative Loafing: I hear you never really put together a setlist before your shows.

Jamie Cullum: Yeah, that's right. There's no setlists. I really try and keep it open and fresh, and the musicians never know what I'm going to play, so it's meant to kind of have a sense of danger and excitement and the feeling that anything can happen and often, it does, which is obviously thrilling.

What gets you off most when you're on stage?

Communicating with the musicians, the kind of spontaneity that you can't plan and don't expect, the moment where everything kind of falls into place, where the musicians are all on the same page, but kind of by accident.

I hear you really enjoy improvising as well.

I love improvising. It's creating a sound that you feel exceeds what you thought you could do, and it's connecting with the audience. When you feel the music that you're making connect with the people you're making music for, it's the best feeling.

What was the overarching idea when you were putting together The Pursuit?

My goals were more aimed at how the album would sound as opposed to the repertoire. The repertoire was always going to be great songs that I'd written that I was proud of, and great cover ideas that felt right. The overarching idea for The Pursuit was to create a record that very much had a classic jazz feel, but that didn't sound like it was a record from the olden days. Sonically, like a record that could fit in today. So you've got a very old, kind of cheesy show song like "If I Ruled the World" hopefully sounding like it could've been done by a band like Portishead or Massive Attack. Feeding into my electronic influences, my rock influences, my down-tempo influences as well as the jazz thing.

Do you ever find yourself combating this kind of clean-cut image that pop jazz crossover artists seemed to get lumped into?

I don't find myself trying to fight my way out of it, because it's not like I'm being associated with people who are shit, I'm being associated with talented artists, which is great.

But I do find it sends out the wrong message with what I'm doing and more often or not, someone will make that association and come to a gig and be a bit frightened because they're being sweated on and there's people jumping around and dancing and crowd-surfing. (Laughs.)

A lot of musicians are making appearances on reality TV, and you had your moment on this season of The Bachelorette. Is a gig like that as surreal for you as it is for viewers like myself?

Yes. (laughs) I mean, 100 percent. I don't know the show — I never heard of it until I got to the States. But I was told that it'd be really good exposure for me, and I'd be going there and playing a song live. (I refuse to mime [fake it] on television.) "You turn up, just you and a piano, play, there's a couple in a competition, they'll come on and dance ..." I was just kind of told what to do and I did it. And yeah, it was totally surreal, totally surreal (laughs). They were sooo drunk (laughs again).

Seems like they've been live music more often on these sort of shows ...

It's a tough world out there and you do have to make decisions like that. Obviously, we would all just like to be on Jules Holland and other credible music shows where you play live and you get to play three album tracks and a full solo. But the reality is, you get that spot on Ellen, and yes, you play live, but it's got to be three minutes and you can't go over three minutes, and it's gotta be this and you've got to stand there and do that ... These days, the music industry's in a totally different place than where it was once, and you just have to go with it.

To me, it doesn't really matter what I'm on as long as I get to play live, for real, 'cause I think you can be on any type of show and if you play for real, you're kind of halfway there.

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