There’s something eternally youthful about Jamie Cullum. It may be over twenty years since the singer-songwriter first brought his brand of jazz-flavoured, piano-garnished pop to the masses — but each and every one of his tracks and tunes still sound original. Every new album fizzes with boyish energy; every performance is fresh-faced and wide-eyed. You almost wouldn’t believe that he’s 42-years-old.
And, yet despite his age and experience, there’s none of the world-weariness you might expect. In fact, Cullum still believes in Christmas. Last year, he fully flung himself into the festive season, releasing a timely album called ‘The Pianoman at Christmas’. Chock-full of childlike wonder and finger-snapping, foot-tapping tracks, it was a tinsel-trimmed treat; an instant classic only improved by this year’s re-release featuring London jazz innovators — and Cullum’s favourite new collaborators — Kansas Smitty’s.
With all of the attention the album has been getting, it’s no wonder the singer-songwriter is nudging one billion streams. Because, after working with everyone from Herbie Hancock to Pharrell Williams, the Brit’s music is heard all over the world, all-year-round. And, while Christmas may be on his musical mind at the moment, Cullum’s ten favourite tracks — which he shares below — are plucked from many different decades and genres. But first, a couple of questions…
How did you discover Kansas Smitty’s for the new album?, My BBC Radio 2 show, which I’ve been doing for over ten years now, has led me to many discoveries — and Kansas Smitty’s are one of them. They’re an extraordinary collection of musicians, who bring a strong sense of the past and future together in a sound that is, at once, approachable but also deeply musical and intricate. I love them — and it was a dream to collaborate with them.
What was the last song you listened to?, Uncut Gem by a wonderful band called El Michels Affair. I’m a pretty rabid consumer of new music, so there’s always something fresh dancing about my ears…
What was the last album you bought?, A Love Supreme: Live by John Coltrane.
Spotify or vinyl?, I love both. I’ve been collecting vinyl for a long time — but I’m long past the stage where owning it feels like a demonstration of some kind of cultural coolness! I have lots of bizarre and interesting records that I’ve collected from my travels to Ethiopia and beyond, or gifted to me by the musicians that made them. But I also love streaming and the opportunities it gives me to discover and research music endlessly. Although I currently prefer Apple Music, because you can stream a higher quality of sound.
What is your favourite driving song?, Witness (1 Hope) by Roots Manuva. It’s one of the greatest tracks in the history of mankind!
What do you listen to when you want to relax?, I don’t really use music in that way. I believe that music can be both a container and an expression of complicated and enormous feelings which may be hard to express any other way. It can be both a balm or a launch pad for the soul. If I want to relax, I look at the trees!
What’s your favourite lyric?, “You haven’t looked at me that way in years / But I’m still here” from I’m Still Here by Tom Waits.
How many instruments do you play?, I only really play two instruments — guitar and piano, I can ‘get by’ on the bass, and the drums if absolutely necessary. I’m a self-taught musician. But, this year, I’ve started to get piano and music lessons for the first time and I’m loving it. I feel like I’ve discovered the piano for the first time all over again — and I’m totally obsessed with playing it and practising.
What’s your favourite Christmas song and why?, Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas. It’s the perfect mix of wistful, joyful melancholy — and a gold standard song at any time of the year. It was a huge inspiration for me in writing my own new Christmas songs for ‘The Pianoman at Christmas’.
What makes ‘Christmas music’ such a special genre?, It holds a deep place in our Christmas rituals. Firstly, with carols and music of the church. And, eventually, with songs from the Tin Pan Alley, Great American Songbook era. It’s music that creates a sense of nostalgia, and a tangible sense of a feeling of home due to its strong harmony. The chords of these songs lead you all over beautiful landscapes — but always land you, gracefully, home.
Jamie Cullum’s Sunday Playlist
Hard Times by Ray Charles, Ray Charles singing and playing piano is the sound that you’ll mostly hear wafting about my house on a Sunday — or any day, for that matter. I used to sing this song with Amy Winehouse when we toured together.
Witness (1 Hope) by Roots Manuva, This is the one song that can get me out of bed — if necessary. The groove and Roots Manuva’s wholly original way of rhyming and playing with the beat makes him one of my very favourites. I was lucky enough to collaborate with him in 2010, on my song Love for Sale, which was inspired by this track.
Strong by Sault, Sault — and [the collective’s] producer Inflo — have been my favourite musical discoveries of the last five years. This is music that feels like it has always existed in our culture, despite the fact that it’s new. Dazzling, complicated and so listenable.
Funkier Than a Mosquito’s Tweeter by Nina Simone, Only the greatest artist of all time, singing and playing one of the most weirdly funky tracks ever committed to a record. Whenever I play this one, people want to know what it is.
When You’re Smiling by Erroll Garner, Erroll Garner is a piano player who is able to communicate so much joy when he plays. It’s a sound that cannot fail to make you smile and make you feel like there is so much beauty in the world.
Come Sunday by Duke Ellington, Duke Ellington, one of the great American composers, wrote some gloriously spiritual music at the latter end of his career. And this is one of his most well-known — it is a bruised, liturgical, yearning masterpiece.
I’m Still Here by Tom Waits, Tom Waits’ growl and broken piano here create one of the greatest love songs I have ever heard. If you’re a grown-up and you’ve been in love for a long time, this will make sense to you.
My Blue Bucket of Gold by Sufjan Stevens, Sufjan is a level of songwriter I aspire to. An enigmatic storyteller and an eloquent melodist, I feel like I carry all these songs of his around in my bloodstream — with all of their heartbreaking beauty.
Blue River by Kansas Smitty’s, Kansas Smitty’s are heavily featured on ‘The Pianoman at Christmas’. They’re just one example of the thriving, young UK jazz scene and their new album, ‘Plundephonia’, perfectly captures the new with the old. It’s one of the best of the year.
In a Silent Way by Miles Davis, Just put the whole album on and thank me later — because this will take you wherever you need to go. It’s pure, improvised musical expression, and it proves that music is as powerful as any drug, deadly weapon, religion, regime, or whatever we may end up discovering beyond this galaxy…
Want more Sunday Playlists? British actor Freddie Fox shares his top ten tracks…
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