It was already far from your standard jazz-trio set when Jamie Cullum climbed under the glass-topped grand piano in the lounge of Austin’s posh, 120-year-old Driskill Hotel in front of a discerning crowd of SXSW buzz-watchers. Not wanting to damage the glass, he began slapping and kicking out a rhythm on the bottom of the piano intended to give his rendition of “I Could Have Danced All Night” a modern house beat.
Before that, Cullum stomped on the piano keyboard to drive home the point of Cole Porter’s “I Get a Kick Out of You,” and pounded on the side of the instrument while inserting “Singing in the Rain” into his jazzy cover of Radiohead’s “High and Dry.” He engaged a group of media people in clapping and singing a jazz riff from his own quarter-life-crisis anthem, “Twentysomething,” and stretched the boundaries of jazz to include a sentimental cover of Jeff Buckley’s “Lover, You Should’ve Come Over,” which rocked pretty hard toward the end. But the biggest surprise was a rollicking shot at The Neptunes’ “Frontin’,” a successful single for Cullum in Europe.
Of “Frontin’” and the rock-artist covers on his Verve debut, Twentysomething, the 24-year-old says he’s simply “moving the jazz tradition on a bit, because that’s what we do.” With a million copies sold in his native U.K., Cullum is eager for a U.S. release, but he’s more eager to begin thinking about his next recording and the possibility of collaborating and recording with Pharrell and The Neptunes.
What you can’t suspect going into a conversation with Cullum is the depth and breadth of his musical interests. He came to love jazz the hard way, discovering it through its progeny in hip-hop, drum & bass and even heavy metal. “It culminated,” he says, “hearing Herbie Hancock Headhunters, Miles Davis’ In a Silent Way and then I heard Harry Connick, Jr., which opened the door to Thelonius Monk and Duke Ellington.”
Just mention that he sounds a bit like Dr. John on a track on the record, and Cullum admits, “I’m a big fan. I really wanted that to come through on ‘Wind Cries Mary,’ which is from Jimi Hendrix.”
For Cullum, the real beauty of his success has been turning his listeners on to other music: “What’s happening is that young people are coming to the shows and being introduced to old music, but to them it’s new. So you get a young fan asking if I wrote “I Get a Kick Out of You,” and then older fans who come out to hear the standards are asking about “High and Dry” and wondering if they would like anything else by Radiohead. That’s cool.”