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Jamie Cullum cooks up new batch of songs

Jamie Cullum cooks up new batch of songs

By Shanon Cook

New York (CNN) — During a performance at the Algonquin Hotel’s famed Oak Room recently, Jamie Cullum disappeared.

No, this wasn’t a magic show. But it certainly felt like one when the diminutive singer-songwriter dropped to the floor and slid beneath the piano.

A confused gentleman sitting in one of the intimate venue’s dimly lit corners asked his wife, “Where did he go?” But soon enough, the sound of Cullum beating the base of the piano like a bongo let everyone know that the musician indeed hadn’t checked out of the show.

If you’ve seen Cullum in concert, you’re familiar with his antics: He’s a piano DJ of sorts, making the instrument his drum, bass and turntable … even a launch pad. (He’s been known to jump off the piano at times.)

The gig was a celebration for the Londoner. His new album, “The Pursuit” (Verve Forecast), had just come out. And he was in a familiar place, having enjoyed a monthlong run at the Oak Room — known as a springboard for artists such as Harry Connick Jr. and Diana Krall — in 2003 when his career still had training wheels.

“I stayed in a room right at the top [of the hotel],” he joked with the audience. “I even had a credit card.”

This time Cullum brought something a little more valuable — his new wife, British writer and former model Sophie Dahl, who sat at a table a few feet from Cullum, smiling sweetly at him throughout the show. The pair married in January.

“The Pursuit” is Cullum’s fifth studio album and features the jazz-inflected piano pop for which he’s cultivated an impressive fan base. It pulls covers from opposite ends of the music spectrum, such as Rihanna’s “Don’t Stop the Music” and Cole Porter’s “Just One of Those Things.”

“I think a good way to describe ‘The Pursuit’ is that it has the beating heart of a jazz musician,” Cullum says. “But the skeleton and the skin and the clothes and the hair are pop and rock and funk and electronic.”

While he didn’t vanish during an interview with CNN.com, Cullum did share some tricks:

Pots, pans and … piano

Cullum didn’t limit himself to a sterile recording studio when it came to creating tunes for “The Pursuit”: “I have a piano in my kitchen because it combines my three favorite things — cooking, eating and playing music. So I would spend a lot of time in that kitchen writing and playing songs. There were elements of the recording that took place in the kitchen, too. There’s a vocal on the album … you can probably hear a pot bubbling away or a kettle there in the background.”

Old-school romantic

The song “Mixtape” explores the process of laying down the perfect compilation tape to woo a crush. Cullum admits to being a high school mix-taper: “I was the music geek. And I believed to get girls to love you, you had to make mix tapes.”

Making it up as he goes

Cullum prefers to keep spontaneity alive (and his band guessing) during his live shows. So he doesn’t come up with set lists: “I’ll walk on the stage, and the band is going, ‘What are we going to play?’ and I’ll go, ‘I don’t know. I’ll sort it out when I get there.’ And I’ll just start playing, and they’ll have to follow along. It keeps it exciting.”

Taking a breather

Cullum, 30, took a year off before making “The Pursuit”: “I’d just been on the road doing stuff for five or six years, and I didn’t want to get to a stage where I was fed up with it. I think there’s always a pressure, especially within the industry that you always have to stay on the treadmill, otherwise people will forget about you. And I guess I had slightly more trust in the audience than the industry did. I just thought it would be pointless to get straight back into it if I didn’t feel I had anything new to say. And I think I obtained new things to say by putting everything I’d done in context, by having time to just sit back and process everything that’d happened.”

When the musician hat comes off …

“It’s very rare that I’m not being a musician, but I have a lot of other pursuits. I love to cycle, play tennis, go to the pub. I read a lot, see my family and friends, embrace the simple things I like.”