Jamie Cullum, piano man for the new millennium

Just hours after playing to Billy Joel’s sold-out hometown crowd, Cullum sat down at the offices of his new label, Blue Note Records, to talk about his spirited new release, “Interlude.”

“It was the most nerve-racking thing I’ve ever done, because I really wanted Billy to enjoy it,” Jamie Cullum says regarding his recent audition in front of Billy Joel and his nearly 20,000 fans in New York City. “My band and I were offered one 35-minute tryout in front of his audience at Madison Square Garden. If it went well, they were going to give us six more. Luckily, it did, and it’s been amazing.”

If Cullum was the slightest bit nervous when I saw him open for Joel at a later gig, he never let on, displaying the pomp, romp, and razor-sharp pianism that has made him one of the biggest live acts in the world today. Since his 2004 breakout album Twentysomething shattered sales records, Cullum has continued to meld myriad musical styles into a unique sound all his own. On his latest release, Interlude, Cullum waxes decidedly retro, with a set of soul/jazz classics recorded live to analog tape.

Just hours after playing to Billy Joel’s sold-out hometown crowd, Cullum sat down at the offices of his new label, Blue Note Records, to talk about his spirited new release.

The last time you spoke to Keyboard in 2010, it was in support of your album The Pursuit, which was a modern melding of pop and electronica. Now with Interlude, you’re digging deep into the jazzier corners of the American popular songbook, with producer Ben Lamdin at the helm. What did he bring to the project?

Ben and I both grew up listening to all kinds of things, from pop and rock, to Hip hop and drum and bass. We both came to jazz through things like DJ Shadow and A Tribe Called Quest. I was immediately taken with the sound of Ben’s Nostalgia 77 records – the way they are recorded totally in analog and all in one room.

But with Ben and Nostalgia 77, it was also about the way they conduct themselves. They have a small record label where they make 500 beautiful, heavyweight, hand-stamped, hand-printed vinyls of each of their releases. They sell everything they make at premium prices, and after everything sells-out they put it all up on Bandcamp. They’re all young guys in their mid to late 20s, and they are all amazing players with a following that has nothing to do with the traditional jazz set. It’s like an old punk collective, but they’re not punks!

That kind of irreverence seems to be emblematic of your career—the way you take elements from different sounds and genres. So while this is a jazz record, per se, it still has traces of the dirty R&B and hip hop grooves you came up listening to.

I’m so glad that comes across in the music, because I couldn’t escape it even if I tried. I think that’s one of the great things about having a background as a jazz player, even thought I’m not trained and I’m not the greatest technician. The great Stewart Levine said this to me when he produced my Twentysomething album: “Jazz is a springboard to take you anywhere you want to go.” And it’s true. As long as you don’t go too far up your own a—hole, it’s a giant trampoline that enables you to visit all different kinds of genres!

Years ago, you said something to the effect of, “I respect the jazz tradition, but it’s not my tradition.” So from the beginning, that template of not being locked-in to a particular sound or style has been a great road map for you. You followed your own compass.

I had a great conversation with [trumpeter and bandleader] Wynton Marsalis about that on my radio show [on BBC Radio 2]. He was one of the people that really inspired me and made me want to work at playing the blues and bebop properly, and really learn the history of jazz. I saw him play [the Charlie Parker composition] “Now’s the Time” just with his quartet, and it was overwhelmingly powerful and full of youth, vibe, and dirt. I had heard certain preconceptions about him, so when we met I thought, “Oh, he’s going to hate what I’m doing.” But he said to me, “I love what you do, man. I’ve kept a really close eye on your career.” He was so complimentary to me. So I think as musicians, it’s all about saying what you want to say. When we played Carnegie Hall, I said to my drummer Brad [Webb], “Oh man, I’m so nervous.” And Brad, who was the youngest and newest member of the band at that time replied, “Oh man, we’ll just say what we’ve got to say. What else can we do?” It’s a really good point.

Let’s dig into the songs on Interlude a bit. The second track is Ray Charles’ “Don’t You Know,” which almost transports the listener back in time to when people really danced to jazz and R&B music. It sounds like we’re listening to you and your band performing at a sock hop in the 1950s!

Absolutely. I think that comes from the fact that both me and my producer Ben both really took to the jazz that came from that world, when it was all about the dance floor. I love the way Ben makes drums sound. He runs everything through an analog desk onto analog tape, so the drums are permanently overloading the analog preamps. It’s not even mythical – there is something scientific about the way a snare drum hits analog tape. It hits a certain frequency and gives you a crackle that is basically distortion. So it’s essentially a mistake, but it’s the sound that everybody wants! There is no plug-in in the world that can do that. I love Pro Tools and plug-ins, and I love having tons of keyboard patches and plug-ins that can give me the sound of an old preamp or compressor. But recording to analog tape not only gives you that unique soundm it also makes you think in a different way. Every time you do a take, that’s it! If you’re halfway through the song and it’s going great, you’d better not f—k up, because you can’t splice takes together.

So you didn’t punch in at all on the new album?

Nope. The only things that were done “posthumously” on this album were Laura [Mvula] and Gregory [Porter]’s vocals, because they were both out of the country when we were recording.

Your comping on “Don’t You Know” is bluesy and rollicking—like you’re “egging on” the trumpet player. Can you talk about your piano concept on that song in particular?

That was the first song we recorded on the album. In fact, we were just checking the sound. Ben set the microphones up and said, “Let’s bust through something to see how everything sounds as a test.” With this way of recording, once you set things up you can’t really change things too much. So twenty minutes after I arrived in the studio and met the bass player and drummer, we played “Don’t You Know,” and it was full of energy. It was freezing in London at the time and there was snow outside. In fact, it was so cold inside the studio because there was no heating that I had a hat and scarf on! We all had a shot of whiskey from a hip flask and we just played. And I think the key to my piano playing on this track was I played as if I was playing solo. Now, most music teachers would say, “Don’t crowd the bass player by playing so much with your left hand,” because obviously that leaves the bass player with nowhere left to go. But I was doing the total opposite there [demonstrates the rocking piano part from the song at the piano], grooving and keeping time with my foot on the sustain pedal.

That piano part is crazy rocking; it sounds as if Jerry Lee Lewis could have played it!

Yeah. The bass player was digging in, and the one thing I told the drummer was just to lay off the ride cymbal until the end. I wanted him just to play the accents on the hi-hat, and to sound like someone who was just learning how to play the drums—with a drum part that sounds almost dumb but is totally grooving at the same time.

Who are some proponents of this piano style that you listened to, and that readers can check out?

Ike Turner is a good example of someone who plays piano like that. Obviously, he was a terrible man, and this is in no way a commendation of his personal behavior, but if we’re talking about piano playing, he played with that kind of aggression and drive. Other obvious influences include Jerry Lee Lewis and Ben Folds. Also, watching Harry Connick Jr.’s encores—when he’s alone at the piano, playing that kind of New Orleans style—had a great impact on me. And Dr. John has been an influence as well, although I can’t play that rolling style of piano [he imitates Dr. John’s piano style at the keyboard]. I think it’s just about the idea of trying to play powerful solo piano, and the vibe of bringing the power of an entire orchestra into your solo playing.

You seem totally comfortable playing and singing on your own, without a band behind you.

Only because I’ve done a lot of it by necessity. As a working musician, I still do a ton of gigs where I’m just not able to bring a band with me. Even today, I probably play half of my shows solo. And as a piano player and singer, it’s a great gift that you actually canhold people’s attention for an hour on your own, playing both the quiet stuff [plays a series of lush, Bill Evans-style chords at the piano] and the powerful stuff [he unleashes a torrent of thunderous runs at the keyboard], coupling in all the percussion possibilities as well [he then proceeds to keep time by playing drums on the top and sides of the piano while holding the sustain pedal down].

Where did you pick up your “piano drumming” tricks from? 

The truth is I never really saw anyone else doing it. The first person I saw do anything like that was Harry Connick Jr. He was playing a New Orleans-type song, tapping his foot on the sustain pedal while playing off beats by drumming on the piano with one hand. I saw that and thought, “That’s cool.” Later on a gig of my own, when we were playing “It Ain’t Necessarily So,” I asked my bass player to slap the body of his bass, and I hit the top of the closed piano with some mallets. On the next gig, I left the piano open and started playing the sides of it with both of my hands. Gradually I realized that if you hold the sustain pedal down, you get a whole range of sounds, depending on where you hit the piano. It even sounds cool when you hit it underneath! Now on gigs, I have a little Brazilian drum in the piano, a bass drum under the piano, and drumsticks. But I have to be using my own piano, because it tears the whole lid apart!

I guess it goes back to liking beats and beatboxing as a kid. Before I knew it, playing the piano that way became part of my thing. In fact, a lot of the things that have become part of what I do, I discovered onstage in front of people. That’s why when young musicians ask me for advice, I tell them, “Get out there and start playing shows.” Whether it’s to two people, or one person, or to nobody in a bar. Soon there will be people there. And that’s where you learn your stuff. I started-out playing tunes I barely knew, busking my way onstage with bands that were far superior to me. That’s where I learned everything, really.

The song “Good Morning Heartache” has a chilling string intro that catapults the listener back in time. There’s a cinematic sense to this one, almost like [Henry] Mancini’s score to a movie like Charade.

The arrangement to that song is one of my favorite ballad arrangements because it’s so weird. It’s very filmic, and Mancini’s score to Charade is a great example. It goes back to me studying film noir at university. But that arrangement is the original Billie Holiday arrangement that we copied. I’ve never done that on an album before, but it’s a direct result of my and Ben’s record nerdiness. We wanted to do that arrangement to highlight it and the time when arrangers put the singer in the band, weaving them into a more orchestral vibe. Our arrangement of “My One and Only Love” is like that too, as well as some other things on the record. It’s a shout-out to 1930s and 1940s things by people like [Duke] Ellington, Gil Evans, and Marty Paich. It was a very conscious decision to make a point about that kind of arranging.

That song features the terrific vocalist Laura Mvula. Did having her guest on that song help you tell a new story with it?

Definitely. Just like Gregory Porter, who also guests on the album, I met Laura through my radio show. We became friends immediately, and after singing together a few times, I thought of her for this song. It reminded me of one of those 1960s films when you see a split screen of two ex-lovers thinking about each other. That’s the kind of story I wanted this song to tell.

The track “Sack o’ Woe” is a grooving blues tune in F minor. You don’t take a piano solo on that one, or much at all on the whole album. Why is that?

On this album, I was surrounded by musicians that I wanted to hear play. There were a couple of moments where I thought, “Maybe I’ll take a piano solo here,” but then I thought, “I want to hear that guy play.” I feel much more confident as a jazz musician delegating and collaborating. And on this album, I just made snap decisions in the moment that I wanted to hear a particular player. That saxophone solo on “Sack o’ Woe” is just so pokey. It pokes you in the face. It’s so great.

Your version of Randy Newman’s “Losing You” is an almost total reinvention of one of the most heartbreaking songs ever written. How did you approach re-imagining it?

What’s interesting about that song is that I had known it for ages, but I never worked it out. I played it to the guys in the studio when we were recording the album and we literally worked it out as a trio on the spot. So when I recorded it, I can’t say I knew it really well. It was only the second or third time I had ever played it. The vocal mic was quite far away from me, and we were set up quite close together as a band with just a few microphones on all of us. I think if I had thought about covering that song beforehand, I probably wouldn’t have done it. But that’s the great thing about this record. There was zero thinking involved. We just thought, “Let’s do this.” We didn’t know if anyone would ever hear any of this stuff! Maybe that’s the way we should always make records.

The chords you play in that one are reminiscent of Bill Evans’ impressionistic piano voicings on “Blue In Green” from the Miles Davis album Kind of Blue.

That’s because that’s the way Randy Newman wrote the song. I wish I could take credit for being a great re-harmonizer, but I think he over-wrote that song so nobody could f—k it up!

Randy has so many trademarks in his arrangements, like doubling the vocal melody in the piano part while he’s singing, and that great inner voice movement.

That’s interesting, because I did the same thing intentionally as well on that song. I did some things with Burt Bacharach a while back. He’s another over-writer. I had a few gigs with him for the BBC with guest vocalists like Adele, and we all had to go up to his hotel room to rehearse with him. I was doing the song “Make It Easy on Yourself,” and he was asking me to sing notes a quarter beat later. He would say, “I want you to interpret this in your own way, but that’s not where the note goes!” That’s the same kind of thing Randy does with his songs. Because he’s the one playing the piano part, every note in every voicing has a purpose.

As someone who is renowned for an ability to take a well known song and make it completely their own, what tips can you impart to the next generation to help them put their own stamp on familiar material?

I never decide to cover a song. What happens is a song will enter my brain and I’ll think to myself, “That’s a cool song.” In the case of a song like Rhianna’s “Don’t Stop the Music,” I remember hearing it in a club and immediately loving the beat and the melody. That song is like a 1980s house/rave sort of thing. It stayed in my brain until later, when I was in my studio and I was trying to write something over these open, hymn chords. [He plays a repeating cycle of open chord clusters that ascend up the piano keyboard]. And suddenly, I started singing the verse lyrics. That’s exactly what happens to me with covers. If they end up underneath my fingers while I’m jamming almost by accident, I know I’m onto something.

I did that recently with a cover of Taylor Swift’s “Shake It Off.” I was thinking about the lyrics and realized that the song worked really well slow. [Reaches inside the piano and mutes the strings with his hands, coaxing an almost guitar like sound out of it while singing the lyrics to “Shake It Off”]. I think it’s a lot harder to come up with your own version of a cover song after you learn it properly. It has to become part of you after you start messing around with it. It’s got to feel like you wrote it.

Unlike many of your other albums, on Interlude, you often sing over someone else’s piano playing. Does that affect the way you sing and interpret a song?

My God, it is the greatest feeling, especially with a piano player as good as Ross Stanley. I learned so much from him; he’s an incredible accompanist and he’s also the best Hammond organ player in the UK. I watched him play the song “Make Someone Happy” and I worked out what he was doing on it. [Demonstrates the song at the piano, playing a series of lush, modulating jazz chords]. I wasn’t playing chords like that a year ago, but getting to sing that song while Ross played it got me to start working things out. I’m playing chords with a lot more information in them, and I’m not doubling loads of notes. So it’s been a revelation to me, and my singing has improved as well.

You don’t read music?

No. I would love to, though.

How do you find such lush chord voicings if you’re not able to read them?

I definitely have a good ear, and I’m persistent. I’m constantly surrounded by better musicians than myself, so I’m always asking, “What’s a better way to play this?” And my bass player will say, “Oh, you’re looking for this chord!”

Was Billy Joel a big influence on you coming up as a musician?

He was by osmosis, by way of the other people I was listening to, like Ben Folds and Elton John. I met Elton at an early age and he was very encouraging to me about my playing, so he’s someone I’ve probably talked about more. But Billy has been just as big an influence; I just haven’t been as vocal about it. When I hear songs like “Scenes from an Italian Restaurant,” I hear that incredible, sick rock piano technique of his. It’s amazing how he is able to hold it down in a big rock band like that.

What did you learn about Billy Joel during your support tour with him?

He loves talking about music and musicians, and chords and pianos. He was interested in what I have in my monitors and what my setup is onstage. We talked about transposing and how he’s brought a few things down a little bit [into lower keys], but how most things he can still sing in their original keys. myself as well.

What’s next for you?

After Interlude, I feel incredibly free to start writing again. It’s almost like having a field where you don’t grow crops in for a year. I’ve written a bunch of new songs and I plan to write more. And I’ve definitely been heavily influenced by Billy lately; not so much in the up-tempo rock department, but in the classic, piano singer/songwriter sense of things like “She’s Always a Woman” and “Piano Man.” So there’s definitely a lot of songs like that going around in my brain!”

Cullum’s Gear
“I’ve got quite a good collection of vintage keyboards these days,” says Jamie Cullum, seated behind a 7-foot Yamaha grand piano. “I really got into the organ thing, so I have a great 1960s Hammond B3 with a 1960s Leslie as well. It took about four years to refurbish it with all the correct parts. I also have a Farfisa, which I love the sound of without vibrato. Other keyboards include a beige, “flat top,” tube [140 Series] Wurlitzer electric piano, an original Roland Juno synthesizer, a Minimoog that I’ve used on loads of tunes. On my album Momentum, I sometimes used it to double bass drum sounds like a [Roland TR-] 808. And I just got a new Dave Smith Prophet 12 that I think is great. I feel it’s a real player’s keyboard.
In terms of plug-ins, I like the ones by Native Instruments. Their organ, synth, and drum sounds get used a lot with my Logic setup when I’m doing demos. Sometimes the demos I create in my studio become the backbone of tracks that end-up on my albums, so I like to use as many real instruments as possible. I also use an Apogee Symphony , a Chandler summing box, some vintage Neve preamps, and a Bricasti reverb unit. I also have some great mics, including an old Telefunken and a great Neumann U47. And I have a Yamaha S6 grand piano, which I absolutely love. It’s a great recording piano.”