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5 Ways to Play Like Jamie Cullum

(Image credit: Getty/Andreas Rentz)

Being known as the most successful U.K. jazz artist in history is quite a responsibility, but Jamie Cullum wears it well. Since the release of his breakout album Twentysomething over a decade ago, this prolific artist has garnered a slew of awards including a Grammy, two Golden Globes, two “GQ Man of the Year” awards, and numerous other accolades. Cullum’s new album Interlude has him revisiting his roots by interpreting jazz classics, and on it he displays his funky, minimalist piano style. Here are a few examples to get some of Jamie’s techniques into your own playing.

1. Pedals and Fourths

In Ex. 1,fourths in the right hand set up the pulse and mood of the track in the first two bars. The open, bell-like quality of the riff has an almost Eastern flair. Experiment on your own with a shallow sustain pedal to get these clusters to rub against each other just the right way. (Try them staccato, too). The low, pedal-pointchords in bars 3 and 4 are a nice contrast to the intro. Let the passing chords ring out against the strong C pedal. At the end of bar 3, quickly grab the F minor triad in the pedal and go right back to sustain.

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2. Intro Devices

On his rendition of Randy Newman’s song “Losing You”on Interlude, Cullum’s intro beautifully sets up his vocal entry. In Ex. 2, I’ve given you a few ideas to spice up your own intros. Bar 1 shows how you can approach the Bb7 chord chromatically from above. Notice the B13 voicing in the first beat which in a tight shape contains many spicy chord tones including the ninth and 13th. It’s these extra colors that give jazz chords their unique quality. Bar 2 harmonizes a simple melody accenting off-beats with nice piano chords. The last two bars show another great technique: chording each melody note. Out of the numerous voicings here, my favorite is the last one, F7 b9 #11.

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3. Cullum Comping

Like all great pianists, Jamie mixes his chords up quite a bit, as in Ex. 3. Sometimes he plays bebop chords with left-hand shells, and other times he employs two-handed rootless voicings in the style of Bill Evans. Here, I’ve tried to give you a few interesting voicings for this common chord progression. These work especially well when playing with bassists because they have no roots and a nice spacing. Usually the third and seventh will be in the left hand, with the color notes in the right. Try to voice-lead your chords nicely without too many jumps.

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4. Modes and Fourths

Ex. 4 expands on the concepts in Ex. 3, demonstrating the kind of fourth shapes made famous by pianist McCoy Tyner. The biggest thing to remember with this style is that all of the notes are coming from a particular mode at first. In the first two bars, the notes are derived from the Ab Mixolydian scale (Ab, Bb, C, Db, Eb, F, G, Ab). The left hand harmonizes the scale in fourths at different degrees, as the right hand adds additional fourths and thirds. In bars 3 and 4, we move the idea to the Ionian mode and

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use more fourths still. A popular technique is to slide these types of chords in and out of key by a half-step up or down and then return to the home mode. This is called side-stepping.

5. Block Chords

A few of Cullum’s chords in his rendition of the classic song “Come Rain or Come Shine” serve as the inspiration for Ex. 5. I’ve come up with a sort of block chord solo here to explain a few key points of this style. Many of these chords are often called “drop 2.” This means the second note from the top of the voicing is played one octave below with the left hand. This has an open sound and nicely mimics a saxophone section. In bar 2, notice how we use minor chords to pass between the Em7b5 and A7 shapes. You can actually fake this style by playing a strong melody in your left hand while filling in whatever harmony you can grab with your right. You don’t have to be perfect. The melody of the left hand gives the audience direction and their ears fill in the rest!

(Image credit: Future)