Jools Holland and his Rhythm and Blues Orchestra comes to @plympavilions and we chat to the main man

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Jools Holland standing at the piano - photo by Mary McCartney

So Jools, you have another packed schedule coming up. It never stops, does it!

There’s an old expression that says if you want to get something done, give it to somebody busy to do it. I’ve always seemed to stay busy even when I mean to not be busy. But I’m very lucky, because I enjoy what I do. The job of being me is the job I really enjoy doing. I like touring, I like playing. The best bit of touring is the fact that you get on stage, and of course that’s the shortest part of it. The longest part is travelling to where you’re going. But I don’t mind the travelling and seeing stuff. But the highlight is being on the stage, and hearing different people in my orchestra, hearing the guests, being able to try and figure out the mystery that is playing the piano each day, and sometimes you feel as though you get a bit better, and sometimes you feel as if…for every five steps forward, you take four back, and you keep going on like that. So it’s a lovely enigma to plug into all the time, really, the whole act of touring, and the whole act of playing.

The set-up of the orchestra harks back to the days of the great bandleaders.

We’ve got a whole big band, which is unusual, it’s not just like a horn section, it’s a whole five saxophones, three trombones, three trumpets, organ, singers and all of that. Drums, guitar, bass, led by the piano. And that is the same configuration that people like Count Basie or Duke Ellington would have had. So it’s a big configuration, a very dynamic configuration, because when all the horns play, it’s like a really exciting thing, and we’ve got, as well as playing our own modern things, we’ve got things from the past just boogied up a little bit more, like Lionel Hampton stuff or ska music that kind of gets you wanting to dance, and I think it sounds magnified by putting it through a big band, which outside is just even better.

‘Outdoor vs. indoor” would be a very hard choice for you, wouldn’t it?

Well, I think it’s fitting the show to the space and the atmosphere. When we go on, we have a set but I’m often diverging from it. You can sometimes see all the people in the horn…we’ve got 13 people in our big band horn section and there’s 18 of 20 of us altogether, but you can see sometimes I’ll call out a song and they’re all kerfuffling with the bits of music in front of them, because we might not have played it for two years and they’re all desperately looking for it. Of course nowadays, a lot of them can do it on their iPads, they’re zooming through that. So they’re not checking their Instagram or their Facebook, they’re actually whizzing through, desperately trying to find what one I’ve called out next.

Because if you’re playing in an open-air place, and hopefully the weather’s the great and it’s all fine, but say for instance suddenly there’s a bit of rain, then we’ll suddenly pick out something because you’ll think no, we’ve got to get the people moving here, because we don’t want them cold and wet, so you’ll play for that. And if it’s really so hot, you’ll change it again to try to cool them down, you know. Some places, for instance there’s a show we do at St. David’s Hall in Cardiff, people are up dancing from the beginning. You want a bit of dancing, from halfway, but from the beginning…so you play for them as well. So it’s great to be able to try to respond to the room, and because we’ve got such a big repertoire, and the orchestra are so quick at learning things, or quick at doing a switcheroo, then that’ll work.

We played a special birthday celebration at Ronnie Scott’s, which was tiny, and we could hardly fit in. There’s a part where everybody goes off the stage except me and Gilson, the drummer, who of course was in Squeeze with me, and we just do a little bit together with the two of us. But it was too small to get the band off the stage, so we had to just bluff something where they could play along with it. But that was all fine as well, and that’s the fun of it. I think if I go and see a show, and when the people see us, they enjoy the fact that they can see it’s all being spontaneous and made up, more than if it was perfectly rehearsed and we were playing the same thing.

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This is an underrated skill of yours as a bandleader, to be thinking on your feet all the time about what comes next.

Yes, I think you do have to be thinking, and you’re thinking in advance, so when you’re playing one, you’re thinking ‘At the end of this, are we going to be going to what we’ve got in the set, or should we move away from it?’ And the other thing of course is that I’m sometimes aware that if I change it around a bit, it means that certain people… it’s important to hear everybody’s voice in the orchestra. In other words, each person has a solo, even if it’s only a short solo, so you’re that as the set goes on, there’s always something new happening in the orchestra, which is great. If there’s not a new guest coming on, there’s a soloist who you haven’t seen. Sometimes if I change things around out, so you then have to get somebody out to do a solo and it all gets a bit [of a] complicated system of pointing, so I look like a bookmaker on a track, tapping my shoulder and holding three fingers up and all of that, to say what the key is.

But that’s the pleasure of it. It’s not chaos at all, but the spontaneity brings a thing  and the band like that as well, I suppose because it’s a lot of the same people in the band for a long time, they’ve grown with that. I think some musicians would start to fall apart with that. ‘Why aren’t you doing what we’ve written down now?’ ‘Here’s a plan, now we’re not going to do it.’ Dr. John fantastic live, and their best side is never caught, because their best thing was doing a gig, and it’s never caught on record, so they were really amazing as live artists and that “…the great bands that I liked, the earlier ones, were led by piano players, whether it was Count Basie or Duke Ellington, or Lionel Hampton on the vibraphone.” was their thing. Other artists were really great on record, and some people it was great because they kept, somehow, both sides of their artistry was captured, both on record and playing live.

I think it’s a funny mix of doing those two things, so I’ve learned a lot by looking at old films of people that had big bands. The sounds of big bands I like, but I suppose with us I wanted a rock ‘n’ roll rhythm section with a big band horn section bolted on the top, which is sort of what we’ve got. But I learned by looking at the films of them that things like the soloist had to come to the front to do their solo, otherwise you didn’t notice that they’d done a solo sometimes, so you have to help guide the audience through it. And of course a lot of the great bands that I liked, the earlier ones, were led by piano players, whether it was Count Basie or Duke Ellington, or Lionel Hampton on the vibraphone. But even somebody like Paul Weller, he’s a great bandleader, because he organises his band to play what he wants. Van Morrison is a great bandleader, Eric Clapton’s a great bandleader, They’re all people that direct the musicians.

Sometimes you get musicians that are really great, you don’t want to direct them, you just know because they’re great that they’re going to do something sympathetic to what you’re doing. But it’s picking that person, that’s part of it. And I think that, for me, if people have got a great talent, you want it to shine, and it’s a symbiotic thing where if you’ve got two people…as an example, Rico Rodriguez is now no longer with us because we lost him a few years ago, but he was one of the great he played, we had to find, I wanted to find things that would magnify his talent, because he was so great. It was Rico that got us to do ‘Enjoy Yourself,’ in a bar one night he started singing it. This is like 30 years ago, he said ‘We should do this live, Jools.’ So it’s a two-way thing sometimes, some people you’ve got on there because they’ve got such a great sound that they do, and you want to hear a bit of that, and also it means that I’ll have written something and in my mind I’ll be thinking ‘This is going to be so great for soand- so to do a solo on,’ you can almost write something with them in mind, you know.

And ‘Enjoy Yourself’ has become one of your theme songs.

Yeah, it’s sort of become our own, really, because through Rico, it’s become our own thing, and it’s a very old song, you know, it goes back to the ’30s.

Actually it’s really ancient, the idea ‘Enjoy yourself, it’s later than you think’ goes right back to the ancient Greeks, I think.

How do you go about adapting the guests’ big hits for a big band?

I wouldn’t want to force things into a big band style for things that weren’t going to work, so sometimes you have to play things in a different way. Most things you can take back to the piano, because I suppose 70 per cent everybody does it these days — anyway, a lot of songs were written on the piano, or the keyboard. Or just on a guitar, one instrument, so they’re not written with a big arrangement. So if you strip it back to that and then build it up again, you can normally make something work. If there’s something that sounds like it’s not naturally going to go with a big band, but anyway when you bring it down to just the piano, it tends to work, and the big band can creep in.

If push comes to shove, could you name your favourite live moment you’ve ever been involved with?

Well, I think, curiously enough, sometimes on the ‘Hootenanny’ we get great moments, I think that something I’ve always really…there are great moments there, which is a live performance there, because all the people in the room, we’re playing live. Sometimes as it gets towards the…there comes a point halfway through the show, roughly, everybody gets up and starts maybe having a boogie, and you feel the whole room taking off. There’s something in that, but it would be hard to pin down one particular one. I think Glastonbury, we played the main stage at Glastonbury a couple of years ago, and that was great, the rain held off and we got everybody singing along to ‘Enjoy Yourself,’ and that felt really great. Ideally, you want to be at one with the audience, it’s not like us here on the stage and you down there listening to us. You want it to be just ‘us’ altogether, becoming as one. When all the people are singing and clapping in time to ‘Enjoy Yourself,’ that’s great. When we were doing it at Glastonbury, and you’ve got whatever it is, 100,000 people all singing it in unison, that feels nice. I hope that doesn’t sound like I’m too much of a football yob [laughs].

In your case, your nan’s piano was crucial to your musical upbringing, wasn’t it?

Yes, my nan’s piano was really an essential thing because it was in her front room, as people had in the 1930s. It was a gift to her by her mother Britannia in 1937, and I would hear them at Christmas, when I was very small, all singing songs. Everybody had their own song that they’d sing at the piano, and it was also a pianola, so you would pedal the pedals and you would hear, and a piano roll would go round, Fats Waller playing ‘Red Sails In The Sunset’ would come out of it, which was great, so I got to learn those songs early on. But also, it was great because my uncle, who was a young teenager when I was small, would play boogie-woogie piano on it, and from that, that really got me going and fired up and made me learn by ear what he was doing, and learn the blues from day one. And I did discover since, that what he showed me, the left hand that he showed me, was the same left hand, because I met and talked to people about this that Ray Charles was shown by an old man in his village, that Ringo Starr, strangely, learned, that I think Mark Knopfler knows it as well. All these people, the first bit of piano they learned, and Dr. John, very strange, they were all drawn to this one little riff. So when people say ‘Show me something on the piano,’ I show them that. It hasn’t worked so far producing the next Ray Charles, but you never know. But it was all the same little boogie-woogie left hand, the same one, the same little figure, a little sort of ‘baa-baa…’ [sings].

Did you have records in the house at home?

We couldn’t afford a piano, but we had a record player, and a radio, and my parents liked classical music and jazz music, and so I would hear a lot of that, and I think it opened my mind to a lot of that, so I still like it very much. I say jazz music, like Bessie Smith or Jelly Roll Morton, things like that. Then at my grandmother’s house, there was a record player as well, so I would get records and then play them to death. The first record player I had was a 78 record player, with a great big wind-up needle, which is the worst thing even to play 78s on, the one with the big metal needle. I had a Beach Boys record and I worked out that if I slowed it right down, the Beach Boys sounded vaguely alright, for about five times, then the big metal needle took everything off the vinyl face off the record, so that was the end of that. But eventually, my dad got me an Alba record player, and we could have a good listen to whatever records were out at the time. I think I had a Glenn Miller one, which got worn out, but the first proper LP I had was ‘For Once In My Life’ by Stevie Wonder, I liked that, and I think I had ‘Lady Madonna,’ the single, by The Beatles, because I tried to learn the piano part on it.

What’s your favourite record you’ve ever played on?

Yeah well, I’ve been lucky, I’ve played on a few different records. I played on one with B.B. King and Van Morrison, it was a record for B.B. King with people doing tracks with him, and Van was singing a track and I was playing piano on it. They played this thing and they counted in, and the first intro is two leading notes on the piano. The band starts singing and B.B. starts playing and neither of them have played it before, and it just was ‘This is just great, wow, it’s really magical.’ I got the record back and it’s just lovely, yeah.

So the adventure continues?

The adventure continues, I hope, that’s right, and it’s great fun to do it, it’s a great pleasure to keep playing, and you never know quite what piece of music is around the corner that you can embrace or attack, depending on which way you look at it next.

Tickets to see Jools Holland and his Rythym and Blues Orchestra at Plymouth Pavilions on Friday 20th December, 7.30pm, are available at www.plymouthpavilions.com.

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