Jamie Cullum: ‘The left-field jazz that you can dance and lose yourself to is what Cheltenham does well’

Jamie Cullum

Jamie Cullum - Credit: Archant

Jamie Cullum will be showcasing songs from his new album at the Cheltenham Jazz Festival – and it’s going to be emotional

Jamie Cullum

Jamie Cullum - Credit: Archant

Local boy made good (well, he was brought up in Hullavington), Jamie Cullum’s brand-spanking-new album is due for release at the end of May. We can’t tell you what it’s called – because Jamie isn’t saying yet. But we can tell you it’s jam-pack-full of original songs. (And that Cheltenham Jazz Festival-goers will be amongst the very first to hear them.)

Jamie, you’ve been hard at work on your eighth album. What can you tell us about it? And what will it tell us about you?

It’s an album of all original songs this time. And I think it gives away a lot more about its author than perhaps albums I’ve made before. It’s quite personal – definitely made by someone interested in telling more truths about thoughts and processes and confusions and worries and loves and dislikes and hates and everything in-between. And questions. Actually, there’s a line in one of the songs that says, ‘I write to learn what I’m thinking’ – and that’s very true in my case.

Umm...So is that pretty scary? Putting something so personal out there?

You’ve hit the nail on the head. Scary in the sense that it doesn’t necessarily sound or feel like anything I’ve made before. So you do wonder what people will think about it… But, at the same time, you get to a point in any career when you’re making art (I don’t want to sound pompous) where you have to do it for the right reasons. There are so many people putting music out; unless you’re making something honest – or at least what you believe is honest – there’s no point. So I think it just feels more… vulnerable.

Jamie Cullum

Jamie Cullum - Credit: Archant

Is that honesty you mention an honesty about the outside world? Or about your own interior world?

I guess it’s using the inner to tell the outer. And also the opposite way round. I’m quite typical for the age that I am now where I’m thinking a lot about the world. The lyrics all have this slightly kind of anxious, searching quality to them; but the music is the opposite of that. The music feels like the solid base: the anchor, which it has been in my personal life. Music and love for others. My family is the anchoring thing: I keep referring back to it, song after song. These things remind you that your feet are planted firmly on the ground. And, really, every song is about that.

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OK – so what kind of music can we expect?

It very much draws on a feeling of jazz, blues and gospel, with hopefully the good musicianship you’d expect from my records. So it’s not an out-and-out jazz record; but it references classic song-writing, classic jazz, blues and gospel song-writing throughout. Some of the songs are really simple; some are just piano with a very little bit of organ. Some have a full orchestra on. Some of them are literally recorded in my front room, with one microphone, where you can hear the birds outside. Some of them are very painstakingly put together. Some of them have me playing drums, bass, guitar, piano; some have loads of gospel vocals on. Each song has told me what it needs to be; the song has been King this time.

You became artistic curator of Cheltenham Jazz Festival in 2010. This year, you’re stepping back (but only slightly), and we’re seeing Gregory Porter in the role. Why’s that?

I’ve have brought a lot to Cheltenham over the years, which I’ve loved doing. But I’ve not been as directly involved in the past year, partly because of time; and partly because other people have started to become really involved - and I love that. It’s a great way to broaden it out and to keep making it the best festival it can be. Gregory Porter is a friend, who I was very proud to bring to Cheltenham for the first time. He’ll bring a different angle, which will be great for the festival. He’s one of the great artists of this generation and it’s a pleasure to see that.

Jamie Cullum

Jamie Cullum - Credit: Archant

Can you remember when you first heard him?

I remember being sent a demo of his album six years ago. I remember playing him out on the radio for the first time, and saying, ‘Do you know what… I don’t often think this but this guy’s going to be a big star.’ I wasn’t the only person to say that but I definitely had a feeling. Sometimes you hear those voices once in a generation - and he’s one of them.

So what have been your Cheltenham Jazz Festival highlights over the years so far?

I remember driving down, after my nan’s 75th birthday party, to go and see a late-night concert with the guitarist John Scofield, which was incredible. I remember singing with Gregory Porter for the first time, when I joined him for his gig. I remember a year when they had the rapper, Manuva, playing the late show; there was a double-header of Bonobo/Manuva: one of those things Cheltenham does so well, where they have kind of left-field jazz things that you can dance and lose yourself to. And then jam sessions in the hotel that last until they’re bringing out the breakfast. They’ve happened many years. Really wonderful times.

Cheltenham is a fab opportunity for surprising combos; we often see artists spontaneously sharing a stage. Give us - not your fantasy dinner party but - your fantasy line-up.

If I can do dead or alive, then that’s easy! Jimi Hendrix. I’ll take Miles Davis. I’ll take Bruno Mars. Maybe Drake for a cameo. Beyoncé. I’ll take Ginger Baker on the drums; maybe Charles Mingus on the bass. Van Morrison. And, one of my favourite piano players, a guy called Ross Stanley, who is probably the greatest piano player in this country right now.

Jazz is synonymous with freedom. We could make the case, in this old world of ours, that we need it more than ever, couldn’t we?

Umm. Do you know what? I’m not sure we need to just say that it’s jazz that does that. I think art is becoming more important than ever. I can feel people being drawn to people who express themselves in an authentic way more than ever; because it feels like we are lacking authenticity in certain areas of our lives – in government and things like that. Authenticity feels like a priceless commodity.

So you’re performing on the opening night of Cheltenham Jazz Festival. Will you be around to see any of the other acts?

Bloody hell - of course I will! It’s a great festival, with amazing people playing there. I’ll be looking forward to it.

Jamie Cullum is playing Cheltenham Jazz Festival at 8pm on Wednesday, May 1. For more on Jamie, including his new album, visit jamiecullum.com.

For a full jazz line-up, visit cheltenhamfestivals.com/jazz. Call the box office, Tues-Fri, 10am-5pm, 01242 850270; or visit the pop-up box office on the ground floor of John Lewis in Cheltenham High Street Tues-Sat, 10am-5pm, from Feb 27-March 9; and from March 27-April 6.