Jamie Cullum: Inside the 'Interlude' Sessions

British jazz superstar collaborates with producer/engineer Benedic Lamdin and his band, Nostalgia 77, to record his latest album, Interlude, live to tape at The Fish Factory in London

CONVENTIONAL WISDOM holds that jazz is an American art form: the crossroads where blues and folk rhythms meet European harmonies and the resulting concoction is pure swing. Sure, such Euro trailblazers as Michael Garrick, Graham Collier, and Keith Tippett have dipped their sometimes avant garde toes into the swinging brew, but that has never changed jazz’s complexion. So it comes as a shock that the spike-haired, soul-crooning British artist Jamie Cullum made Interlude (Blue Note), an album that not only swings its knickers off, but does so with great rawness and authenticity.

“I grew up reading Jack Kerouac and listening to Miles Davis and Charlie Parker and imagining being a New Yorker in the ’30s, ’40s, or ’50s,” Cullum explains from his home in Great Missenden, Buckinghamshire, England. “Modern jazz records sound so shiny. I want my version of jazz to have a bit of dirt on it. I like jazz when it was about behaving badly and girls and sticky floors and forbidden times. I heard jazz first on the dance floor, or chopped into drum and bass music. That’s what gave the music its edge for me, that fact that it was sampled from old music that was layered and made with that kind of grit.”

Cullum’s Interlude was recorded live to tape at The Fish Factory in London by producer/engineer Benedic Lamdin and his band, Nostalgia 77. Their name may recall a K-Tel record of golden oldies hits but this quintet is the real deal, performing jazz with a genuineness that recalls Duke, Louie, and Mingus.

“I’ve loved the sound of Benedic’s records that he’s been making with Nostalgia 77 for the past ten years,” says Cullum. “Their records don’t sound like anyone else. I knew that they were recording live to analog tape, and looking at these old records that they loved and wondering, apart from the musicians, what are they doing that we’re not doing now? That was recording in one live room, not using that many mics, mixing it as you’ve already set it up, and recording live and cutting it to tape. None of us are antidigital Luddites, but for this type of record this approach works really well. Because you’re trying to capture the spirit of the moment and if you get it sounding right then not only the musicians and the songs but the sound can tell part of the story as well.”

Recording a band with vocals live to tape remains a rarity on either side of the Atlantic, but as sometimes happens, the English take the best of American music and spin it back at us. Cullum reinvigorates such warhorses as “Come Rain or Come Shine,” “Make Someone Happy,” and “Good Morning Heartache” like a natural jazz singer, injecting the music with power, passion, and a certain beat that is pre Rat Pack, closer to the Broadway bounce of early Ellington (or Slam Stewart), the mystery grooves of Nina Simone, and the bittersweet strains of Billie Holiday and Lester Young. The immediacy and depth of swing heard in Interlude’s 15 tracks is undeniable.

“The challenge was great,” says Cullum, “because I was walking into a room full of musicians that I didn’t know. Recording that way you’ve got that feeling that if the take is going well for everyone, you don’t want to be the one who messes it up. And if you do mess it up, how bad is it, or did you just give it more character? Once you’ve cut a few songs that way you get used to things not being totally perfect. And you get used to things being real and human.”

Recording Interlude in three days’ time without a signed label deal made the project all the more daring, but Cullum, England’s only Platinum-selling jazz artist, is used to taking risks.

“I had a deal on the table but it wasn’t one I wanted to sign,” Cullum confides. “It was more about having a BBC jazz radio show for four years and wanting to make a jazz album again. I didn’t know what it was going to be, we just booked three days in the studio and did some recording, there was no endgame in sight. It’s like recording used to be: You’d book a session; you weren’t thinking of an album, you didn’t know what you’d get out of it. It’s more about booking the time and see what happens.”

Though his enormous UK success allows Cullum the freedom to do almost entirely as he wishes, one thing he didn’t chance was his choice of vocal mics.

“I have an old Neumann U47 and a new Telefunken ELAM 250,” he explains. “I use the 250 a lot. When singing this kind of music I want more air around my voice. I didn’t worry or rest enough, I just sang it. I found myself using the ELAM more than the U47. That’s because the 47 needs a little work at the moment. But I also love singing through my Shure SM7 for pop stuff. I find that the Telefunken doesn’t lie to me, but it does capture all that richness.

“When I made my third album, Twentysomething, [producer] Stewart Levine had definite opinions about recording jazz,” Cullum continues. “That I shouldn’t sound like an old person, but someone in their 20s. The problem is you get these beautiful old microphones and they make you want to sing like you’re old and schmaltzy. So I use mics that don’t give me a false sense of machismo. And I don’t like monitors that trick me into thinking a track sounds really good, which is why I like Yamaha NS10s. I like a mic and monitors that don’t lie to you.”

Located in Dollis Hill, London, The Fish Factory is Benedic Lamdin and Nostalgia 77’s home turf. Lamdin works on an API Legacy console, recording to a Studer A80 Mk II (and Pro Tools), without plug-ins, but to outboard units from UA Teletronix (LA2A), Pultec and Lang EQs, EMT 140 Plate, and Telefunken and Ampex mic preamps. Minimal gear or not, Lamdin captures a warm, immediate, and live sound at The Fish Factory.

“It’s about not too much close-miking, and not too many mics,” Lamdin says. “Three mics on the drums, some mics on the different horns, but mainly a stereo pair. A mono mic on the piano. I like the Coles ribbon mics. They kick out loads from the sides so you can put the sax player right in front of the drums and that works, for instance. And if you record without headphones the band balance themselves, really. The simple miking scenario is also restricted by having only 16 channels to work with on the tape machine. Something like Charles Mingus’ Ah Um sounds very muscular, and it was recorded in similar fashion.”

Lamdin recorded acoustic piano with a single Neumann U67 “in line with where the lid comes down.” Acoustic bass was tracked using a Neumann U47 pointed straight at the bridge. Drums were recorded very minimally, with a Neumann M49 “just above the kit,” an Akai D25 on the kick drum just outside the front head and “different things on the snare drum.” A pair of Coles 4038s for trumpet and saxophone, “quite far back from the horn players, one big pace back, which evens out any notes that jump out between the two horn players.” Everything went through the API’s onboard preamps.

Lamdin set up the group in a circle in the live room, with gobo screens between the musicians and the studio’s brick walls to cancel reflections. Cullum sang live (and played piano) in the room with Nostalgia 77, punching in only about 10 percent of the vocal tracks in an isolation booth.

Sitting in his home studio, which holds a complete Pro Tools rig and 3,000 LPs, Cullum says he will record this way again, with everyone recording live to tape with no headphones and minimal isolation.“Recording this way was a reminder of how important it is to capture a moment,” he asserts. “I love technology, and it excites me, but it’s still important to capture a performance. Whether it’s like Flying Lotus, who pieces music together in an electronic way, but there is a huge amount of both performance and imperfections on his new record. The recording process needs to tell a story. When it does, you can have something really special.”

Ken Micallef also writes for DownBeat and Modern Drummer magazines.

Benedic Lamdin on Recording Drums With Three Mics

“The main reason for using minimal mics is to create a focused image of the drums without phase problems. I find one mic in the right place either over the snare or in front of the kit captures a good image of the drums if the drummer plays with a good balance.

You can fine-tune the balance of hi-hat and snare by angling the mic toward the hi-hats or away—usually either a U67 or M49 or Coles 4038 two drum sticks above the snare. I sometimes use kick and snare mics to add weight to the picture but sometimes for other style recordings one mic still works. I like an Akai D25 on kick and either a small condenser or dynamic mic on the snare. I don’t like it too close. Further out always sounds more natural to me.”