Jools Holland: The piano man

Jools Holland is the ultimate bandleader, the man most likely to assemble a rag-bag of musical talents and produce something really swinging. So what's his secret? It's all down to his eccentric uncle Dave, apparently

John Walsh
Monday 30 December 2002 01:00

Jools Holland is probably the only person with a record in the charts who could make you play air piano. You find yourself at it in your car, even when stuck in traffic, on the way to interview him at his custom-built musical studio in Greenwich, south-east London. It's not something that you take a pride in, air piano – you feel rather a prat, holding your hands at chest height and wiggling your fingers to right and left in a hopeless simulation of Holland's percussive, boogie-woogie style. But you can't not join in. On the car hi-fi, track 12 of his first Small World, Big Band CD features Mark Knopfler, of Dire Straits fame, singing a fast, self-penned blues thing called "Mademoiselle Will Decide". It's short and fiery, and half-way through it, the Geordie axeman yells, "Go, cat, go!", and Holland obliges with a torrential assault on the treble keys that's so fierily inventive, only the most stone-hearted of listeners could not twitch their fingers in sympathy. The other drivers at the lights watch your silent performance with interest – your contorted features, your questing, writhing, wannabe hands...

Getting everyone to join in is, of course, Jools Holland's unique selling-point. A supremely accomplished joanna-basher since his teens and a founder member of the chart-topping band Squeeze, he has become, in the past decade, a kind of impresario of musical togetherness. Like a discreet ambassador, he introduces different musical styles to one another and insists that they get along.

His TV show, Later... with Jools Holland, has been a showcase for new talents, where the likes of Catatonia, Travis, Macy Gray, Gomez, Stereophonics and The Fugees made their TV debut; but for many, the highlight of each show is the moment when all Holland's guests are playing together in perfect har-mo-nee, under Holland's benign and democratic supervision. A typical Later... might feature a rock god, an elderly bluesman, a soul diva, an energetic folkie and a yelling new indie band called something like The Veins. The line-up on 18 October was wildly eclectic: David Bowie, Ms Dynamite, Beenie Man (a Jamaican dancehall star), The Coral and the folk singer Linda Thompson, all of them briefly yoked into a factitious freemasonry. Later... was the show on which Robbie Williams sang his hit song "Angels" and was genuinely amazed to find the flame-haired country singer Bonnie Raitt behind him, playing the middle eight on slide guitar.

On his Small World, Big Band records, Holland pulls the same trick of inviting big-name friends from a score of different genres, putting them through their paces in front of his R&B orchestra and seeing what happens. He has become The Man Who's Played With Everybody, the pal of every musician who ever sang the blues, the favourite uncle of whippersnapper bands such as Stereophonics and The Verve, the guy with his arm around George Harrison and Chrissie Hynde and Badly Drawn Boy, looking like the patron of an Italian trattoria posing with his glamorous customers... Frankly, if Jools hasn't asked you on to his show or his album, what kind of musician are you anyway?

"Well, I wouldn't mind being thought of as Mr Harmony," he says. "That would be no bad thing at all, because I think that music is a power for good. Harmony makes people move around spontaneously, by a kind of magic effect, something you don't find happening in art galleries or poetry readings. If you get people going like that, it's probably a good thing."

But it's true, isn't it, I say, that he's become this benign Olympian figure presiding over the modern music scene?

Holland's waxy brow creases. "Hmmm. I wouldn't want to end up like Peter Glaze [the bespectacled Sixties children's-TV entertainer] on Crackerjack!, much as I like him; he was my role model when I was young. I wouldn't like to be thought of as mindlessly..."

I didn't mean that. I mean, you're now the chap whose party everyone wants to come to. That's what you've turned into. "Inadvertently," Holland grudgingly agrees.

He talks with artless enthusiasm about how he has realised his musical dreams by writing songs for, and performing them with, his heroes and heroines. There are lots of those in Holland's life. When you arrive at his recording studio in Greenwich (and are surprised to note that its frontage is the fascia of an old single-branch railway station, complete with cocoa advertisements and public notices), the first thing you see is a photograph of the teenage Jools, in a black poloneck, leaning over a piano on which Stevie Wonder is playing. Holland's smile in the photo is sharky but blissful, the smile of a passionate fan. Through documentaries and live TV shows, he has now met most of the Olympians (including Ray Charles, Fats Domino and Jerry Lee Lewis) but still occasionally pinches himself in disbelief about whom he has found himself singing with.

"I couldn't believe it when Dionne Warwick said yes," he breathes. "I wrote the song 'What Goes Around' with Sam Brown, here in this room with a rather gloomy, Schubertian piano part, and Sam said, 'Oh cheer it up a bit', so I played the piano bit in a different style, and we sent the song to her. And she said she'd love to do it. I think it fitted her like a glove. That track does two things. It makes her sound great, and it magnifies the song into this great thing that it wasn't before."

She sounds fantastic on the record, I say. Even though she's old enough to be Whitney Houston's mum.

"As a matter of fact, she is, I believe, Whitney Houston's aunt. Or is it her second cousin?"

Holland's reedy, south-London voice emerges in a Bren-gun stutter – that strangely hesitant, cod-formal, fastidious-butler way of speaking. He manages to seem both guarded and confiding at the same time, as he surveys you with his dark brown eyes and sits like a sulky matador ("I got my devastating Spanish looks from my mother; and my Gypsy-prince complexion, that I got as a teenager by not washing") in the room above his recording-studio. He talks a blue streak about music and his own development, and displays a sweet local pride in having stayed close to his Greenwich roots all his life.

He was eight when he was taught the rudiments of boogie-woogie piano by his eccentric, practical-joker uncle Dave. "Although he'd been shown them in turn by my mother, as she's constantly reminding me. 'What about me?' she says. 'I taught him how to play "Shotgun Boogie" by Tennessee Ernie Ford in the first place.' " Both his grandmothers were keen pianists who would entertain in the parlour. "But I never really heard them playing, because after I was eight, I wouldn't let anybody else on the piano – I just barged them off."

Did he play carols at Christmas? Did he hell. "No, I was still trying to play blues songs at Christmas." His feeling for big-band swing came early: "I was listening to contemporary records at the time, to The Beatles and Motown, and I loved the sound, but at the same time, at 10 or 11, I was going back to the early R&B stuff, to Fats Domino or Little Richard, and thinking they were really great, even though they seemed to be from a period before I was born. Now, as I get older, 10 years before I was born doesn't seem all that far away."

In his teens, he began to haunt the pubs of south-east London. It was there that he developed the streak of competitiveness, and of leadership, that you can hear on his records today.

"When I started, we used to bowl into pubs all the time, and sometimes they'd have a pianist. So I'd ask, 'Can I have a go?' I was 16 and trying to get work, and I knew I could show off far more than they could, and then I'd get their job. Thinking back, it was an awful thing to do. And you could sometimes sit in with trad-jazz bands. I used to love listening to those people at the Mitre in Greenwich and the Prince of Orange in Rotherhithe. I liked playing with them – I love that New Orleans-style stuff – but it was impossible to get them to play an organised riff."

Tut, tut. Then he found himself in a Deptford pub, listening to the first big band he'd been to see, and was converted. "It was wonderful – you had four people on saxophones, all doing the same riff in this mechanical way, then four people on trombones, doing an opposing riff, and the same with the trumpets – and you can blast away over the top of them or in the gaps they leave. It's really exciting. It's a great huge breathing thing called a big band."

Holland's dark eyes shine with zeal. He is immensely proud of his 18-piece "rhythm-and-blues orchestra", which he leads, like Count Basie or Glenn Miller before him, but taking them constantly into new, non-jazz areas, such as ska or country balladry. "The thing about us is, we're really a rock'n'roll group fused with a big band," he says. "The rhythm section is all rock – the drummer, Gilson Lavis, who's been with me since Squeeze, used to play drums for Chuck Berry – with the horns bolted on. Maybe that's why people like us: because the music has that drive to it that you don't often get with a jazz orchestra."

A truth that the Small World records confirm is that any singer who finds himself in front of an 18-strong orchestra will instantly raise his game. Indifferent singers such as Marianne Faithfull or the Velvet Underground's John Cale belt it out like Shirley Bassey. Ancient performers such as Taj Mahal or Edwin Starr sound as chirpy as Gareth Gates. Tough-guy rockers brazenly flirt with the material of crooners. Only on a Jools record would you find Huey, the rasping recidivist from Fun Lovin' Criminals, singing the cocktail-hour classic "Fly Me to the Moon", or Robert Plant, formerly of Led Zeppelin, belting through "Let the Boogie-Woogie Roll", or Kelly Jones, the gravel-voiced Stereophonics singer, doing a full-throated version of "The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face".

All the recordings are made here in Greenwich. Jools and I go and look over the balcony, into the bright, pine-boarded room where all this promiscuous energy and talent is crammed on to 22 tracks of a CD. "I'm proud to say, it's all done here in south-east London," he says. "Eighteen musicians, plus the engineers and the singer, isolated behind the glass.

"We tend to start at noon, when a large selection of sandwiches is brought in – crusty traditional sandwiches with no mayonnaise anywhere. They're a very important constituent. Everybody gets there early for the sandwiches."

And, amazing to discover, they usually do just one take. With so many people involved in the room, you can't keep stopping and going back to iron out fluffs. "And nine times out of 10, the people we work with are people for whom the first take is it anyway. Some people, such as Van Morrison and BB King, won't do more than one take, because they know that's going to be the best one. It's about capturing the moment. And that's what records were like, until people worked out how to multitrack."

Tut, tut again. There's something sweetly censorious and old-fashioned about Jools Holland at 44, as he casually name-drops Ray Charles and shakes his head over the dearth of live music (and the total absence of musical instruments) in the modern boy-band world. "I don't want to sound like an old person," he says, "but I was watching that Popstars thing the other night, and I said to Mabel [his 11-year-old daughter], 'The trouble with this music is, there's no element of rock'n'roll or blues in it', and she said, 'Oh shut up, Dad. It's really good; these people are trying really hard...'" He waves his hand silently, perhaps thinking of the days when teenage musicians could be applauded in pubs not because they were trying hard but because they could pound out music like a virtuoso and make people move around spontaneously.

Jools and the orchestra have come to the end of a huge 41-venue tour, playing to packed houses, bringing on guest singers such as Ruby Turner and Sam Brown, his long-term collaborator and chanteuse.

Now, before he sits down to plan Small World, Big Band 3 ("David Gray said, 'Not this time, but perhaps the one after'; so did Paul McCartney"), he has one last gig this year. It's Hogmanay. Alongside the 10th anniversary of Later..., he is celebrating 10 years of New Year's Eve shows and almost making the whole first-footing business seem cool.

Is he going to turn into Andy Stewart, the beaming host of the White Heather Club, which used to usher in the new year on the BBC with drams and dancing and renditions of "Loch Lomond"?

"Oddly enough," he says, "the band were pulling into Arbroath, looking forward to some local Arbroath smokies, when we heard on the radio that Andy Stewart had died. He came from the town, of course. The band got very worked up and said to me, 'It's fate – you're here to inherit his mantle.' I don't know, though. I'm not sure I could be Andy Stewart. I couldn't manage that cocked eyebrow of his..."

It is indeed hard to imagine this droll and gifted music-maker signing off his show with a glass of Glenlivet in his hand and the words: "Just a wee deoch an dorus 'fore ye gooo," on his lips. But maybe the Bell's whisky commercial is a start.

'Jools Holland's 10th Annual Hootenanny' is on New Year's Eve, 11pm, BBC2. Deborah Ross is on holiday

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