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Jamie Cullum reworks songbook staples on LP and at Berklee

McVirn Etienne

Jamie Cullum’s vision of jazz has long been a notably inclusive one. Affable and attractive, the 35-year-old English singer and pianist crafts a tastefully updated spin on postwar vocal jazz, whether interpolating hip-hop beats or revealing his unashamed pop instincts and jumping on top of his piano in concert, wearing a suit and sneakers.

He’s been described as the UK’s best-selling jazz artist of all time, a distinction that ironically could be a red flag for purists. Earlier this month he opened for Billy Joel at Madison Square Garden. So when his current road jaunt is promoted heavy-handedly as “The Jazz Tour,” the description seems both a promise and a warning.


Though “Interlude,” whose stateside release Cullum celebrates at Berklee Performance Center on Tuesday, is a standards album (of sorts) and a hard turn toward buttoned-up, large-group jazz, it has an energy that still suggests the route Cullum took into jazz — from the outside in.

“There were obviously a lot of electronic beats, and a lot of druggy, rave-y culture,” he says of the music scene when he was a teenager visiting Bristol in the 1990s. “But within that was this culture of record collecting and discovering old music and musicians and particular drummers on particular records. And through that, you start hearing names like Herbie Hancock and Miles Davis and Jack DeJohnette.”

The idea for “Interlude” came about in a pub visit with the musician and record producer Benedic Lamdin, after Lamdin had been a guest on Cullum’s popular jazz show on BBC Radio 2. It features musicians culled from Lamdin’s ensemble Nostalgia 77, in formations ranging from solo piano to sextet to, for some tracks, a 22-piece big band. (Cullum’s piano is heard on the album, but he shares those duties with Ross Stanley.) The album was cut in just three days, recorded live to analog tape, with songs typically given just a couple takes.


Though Cullum has recorded greatest hits of the Great American Songbook on previous albums (Cole Porter has been a repeated source of material), the track list for “Interlude” includes few obvious choices. He lets his inner Ray Charles loose on a bluesy romp through “Don’t You Know.” A somewhat corny hit for Hank Williams in 1949, “Lovesick Blues” originated on Broadway decades earlier; the oft-covered “Make Someone Happy” was written as a showtune as well.

But “Out of This World,” featuring an aggressive tenor sax solo by James Allsopp, clearly takes cues from the version John Coltrane recorded with his classic quartet. There’s even room for songs by Sufjan Stevens (“The Seer’s Tower”) and Randy Newman’s “Losing You.”

“I think the record really shows Jamie's breadth as a singer,” Lamdin writes in an e-mail. “You really expose yourself tackling iconic material like this, but I think he handles all these tracks with candor and class.”

Lamdin says his collaboration with Cullum is fueled by a catholic approach to style and genre that the two share: “We have lots of common touchstones, not just in jazz but in electronic music, soul, or hip-hop. While this is an incredibly traditional record in many ways it still sounds like people living now. It’s not nostalgic,” he says — adding that the name of his band is ironic in this context.

Though “Interlude” could be taken — mistakenly, Cullum says — as a conservative course-correction following his more contemporary-sounding 2013 album “Momentum,” he insists that jazz in any form needn’t be a revisionist exercise.


“Something I get asked a lot more in America than I do in the UK is, ‘How does it feel singing all this old people's music?,’ he says. “And I never experienced jazz in that way. When I went to go see jazz as kid, it was always a young scene. There was always a kid singing it, it was in rooms where people were drinking beer, there were always girls around. It was surrounded by a club culture, but it was very youthful. And it' s not just kids coming in and playing bebop, it's kids playing this improvised music that's mixed with club beats and mixed with all sorts of youthful energy.”

Cullum — whose usual working group will be augmented with horn players culled from the Boston scene on Tuesday — says he’s currently working on a new album focused on his own compositions, but would like to revisit the “Interlude” model every two years or so.

“It's not like I'm making obviously commercial standards records,” he says. “This is a perfect example of someone who doesn't think [about] business, because this is not a way to make money. But it’s a way to have a [expletive] good time.”

Jeremy D. Goodwin can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @jeremydgoodwin.