“Charming Cullum brings with him good vibes, good stories and great music!”
YOU can’t help but be charmed by the uber-talented Jamie Cullum. The Brit jazz-pop singer-songwriter is much smaller than I had imagined him to be, but let not his size fool you. The diminutive Cullum is so packed with energy and an unmistakable joie de vivre that it’s hard not to get caught up with his ebullience and boyish charm.
Casually striding to the grand piano, Cullum gives an unorthodox introduction to his brand of music while allowing us a glimpse of his unmistakable talent. Belting out an unusual melange of songs, his expressive voice glides over the keys of the piano like smoke.
He sizzles through an eclectic song list consisting of Zayn Malik’s Pillow Talk, My Fair Lady’s I Could Have Danced All Night, Gene Kelly’s Singing In The Rain and Rihanna’s Umbrella, pounding on the keys and beating out the rhythm on the body of the piano with his hands with the kind of exuberant showmanship that draws us into his sphere and shuts the rest of the world out. In that moment in time, Cullum successfully turns a roomful of seasoned journalists into awestruck fans.
It comes as no surprise then to learn that the award-winning Cullum, who holds a First Class Honours in English Literature and Film Studies from Reading University, is the St. Regis Hotels & Resorts’ newest jazz connoisseur and brand ambassador. He has been leading the Jazz Legends at St. Regis series since last year, which has seen him perform at various St. Regis locations around the world including New York, Washington DC, Istanbul, San Francisco, Mexico City and Bangkok.
BRINGING IN GOOD MUSIC
“This isn’t what my house is like, in case you’re wondering,” reassures Cullum with a laugh, as he settles himself in the opulent presidential suite of the St. Regis Hotel in Singapore. He is there to perform an intimate one-night-only performance, bringing the Jazz Legends at St. Regis to this corner of the world before flying off to Osaka the next day.
The 37-year-old artiste is serious about his partnership with the hotel, which also had him curate jazz music aired in public spaces at all St. Regis hotels and resorts globally. “I’m all for bringing back live and jazz music into these spaces,” declares Cullum. “I have a radio show back in the UK and a big part of that show is all about introducing new music, musicians while supporting venues and places that still play live music.”
He is of course referring to his weekly jazz show currently aired on BBC Radio eponymously titled The Jamie Cullum Show. “So when I talked with St. Regis about them doing this, they understood it was really important to me to launch these spaces as live music spaces as well. In a way we’re bringing back great music to all these places really.”
He adds, tongue-in-cheek: “Of course I get to stay in all these amazing locations and the cocktails are pretty good too!”
INTERNATIONAL JAZZ DAY
Bringing great music wherever he goes landed Cullum at the White House recently. Flashing a boyish grin, he confesses: “Such a great thing to drop into conversations, isn’t it? I had to stop myself from doing it when I’m around friends and parents of my kids’ friends!”
His excitement and pride are palpable as he recalls his performance during the All-Star Global Concert for International Jazz Day in Washington in April. “It was an amazing experience. Not only did I get to meet President Obama and First Lady Michelle, but I got to hang out with Aretha Franklin and Herbie Hancock, and perform alongside stalwarts like Sting, Wayne Shorter, Dee Dee Bridgewater, Kurt Elling and Diane Reeves.”
It’s amusing to watch Cullum completely geek out with a star-struck look on his face as he blissfully name drops. The self-deprecating musician then asks conspiratorially: “Do you know what I mean by imposter syndrome?” He proceeds to answer his own question with surprising candour: “It’s when you find yourself in a room full of people, and you think you’re there by accident!”
The Englishman has come a long way since he first attempted to learn the guitar solo to the Eagle’s hit Hotel California. “I really did start off wanting to be a guitarist,” Cullum reveals while citing heavy metal bands like Slayer, AC/DC and Iron Maiden among his earliest inspirations. “Not a huge amount of subtlety in the music but there was such incredible musicianship which I intensely admired”
The singer-songwriter candidly admits: “I didn’t grow up listening to jazz. From heavy metal, I moved on to hip hop and electronic dance music because there was a lot of hip hop appreciation going on in Bristol where I grew up.”
With hip hop often referencing jazz and using jazz samples in their music (a case in point being A Tribe Called Quest which was a huge influence to Cullum); it finally got him pulling out jazz greats such as Miles Davis, Jelly Roll Morton and Fats Waller for a listen. “In a kind of a backward way, I drifted into jazz and really got into that.”
“I would categorise myself as a real fan of music in general,” surmises Cullum after talking about his varied influences. “It sounds too broad but it’s not intentional. It’s just that I am a real fan of music and my being a musician has come out from being a fan. You’ll find out that I have people that I love across all the genres and they all have in common a deep musicality and attention to detail.”
This is probably why his genre-mixing music makes it near impossible to confine Cullum to a box. The “Jamie Cullum” style is a juxtaposition of retro and progressive, heritage yet hip that he has been labelled as a “crossover” artiste by many. He doesn’t mind the label, at least not anymore.
He confides: “I used to think it sound unauthentic, but right now? I don’t really care what labels are thrown at me. Crossover simply means that you are appealing to people outside the genre. You’re appealing to people who don’t listen to jazz or pop, for example.”
Shrugging his shoulders, he adds: “You can’t fight off labels, really. You develop a thick skin in this profession and accept that you will be called names or labels you don’t like or be written about in way you think isn’t right. I’m over feeling like I’m not good enough to be here unless of course I’m playing next to Herbie Hancock or Aretha Franklin!
“I may not be the best singer or the best piano player, but if you put it all together you get me. I think that as you get older, you’ll find out that what you bring to the table is your own vibes, thoughts, story and that’s important.”
KEEP ON MOVING
He has unquestionably brought his own vibes with his unique ability to make what’s familiar sound new to most mainstream fans. With more than 10 million albums sold worldwide however, Cullum isn’t really affected by his success. He admits: “I honestly didn’t think I’d sell this amount of albums. You would think that when this kind of success finally comes, you’d feel validated. It doesn’t happen that way. Quantifiable success does not really make any difference. The only thing that actually makes the difference is the work that you do.”
As the minutes tick, I sense a trace of weariness creeping up his demeanour. It’s probably due to the fact that he’d just arrived from the UK that morning. Yet, the singer continues to maintain his charm and answers all questions good-naturedly.
“If I ever were to advise anyone who’d want to follow this same path, I’d tell them to just enjoy the process. It is the best part, really. Fame is really a very empty promise. You chase after it thinking it will bring you happiness, and when you finally have it, you wonder why it hasn’t made you happy at all.”
He confides that he has no regrets so far. “I’m definitely happy where I am now. I feel very lucky that I get to make a living doing what I do, that I have a lovely family and have been given amazing opportunities. Creatively, however, I’m still very restless.”
Soon, it’s time for Cullum to begin rehearsing for the night’s performance. As we part ways, I continue to marvel that he really isn’t that much taller than me. The 162cm performer’s expansive personality somehow makes him appear a lot larger than life and a lot taller than he actually is.
That is when you realise that this is really what makes him so endearing to fans and audiences to his concerts around the globe. He still manages to put a last word in before leaving. Smiling, he posed: “Wasn’t it Bob Dylan who brilliantly sang that he who is not busy being born is busy dying? I don’t think there’s anything truer than that. I will never stop working, creating, exploring because it’s who I am really.”
First published in the New Straits Times, 23rd May, 2016