Jools Holland has been musical director at The Jam House in Birmingham since the venue opened in 1999. His Rhythm & Blues Orchestra visits The Jam House on March 10, and also play the NIA on December 18 with special guest Alison Moyet. Jon Perks quizzed the man at the keyboard.
* You’ve been involved with The Jam House from the start and regularly play here; what do you think makes it such a good venue?
The Jam House in Birmingham is one of the most intimate venues we play and it is always great to go back and have a closer relationship with the audience. It’s a bit of a squeeze for my 20 piece orchestra, but it all adds to a fun atmosphere.
* What’s in store at the show... who will you have as your singer(s)?
It’s a whole mixture of stuff, but it’s constantly updated, and by having, basically, three guest singers, there’s constant movement and change of contrast, so it never lets up for a minute, that’s what I aim for.
I want it to keep me completely alert throughout, and if I’m enraptured with it, then there’s a chance that the people that have come to see it get the same feeling as me. That’s my intention with the shows, really, that from where I’m sitting, at the piano, I love it, I get this fantastic view of all these singers and this different music, and when it really goes well, it lifts me up. When the whole thing clicks in together, and the horns are doing one thing, the soloist is doing something different and the rhythm section are punching away, all those elements and your mind is focusing on all those things at once, and you don’t even think, you just get lost in the sway of it, that’s where I love being, in that place, and that’s the place that I hope the audience will be in as well.
I have the benefit of having this incredible big band and amazing singers like Ruby Turner and Louise Marshall touring with us regularly.
They have completely different voices to suit different songs and are both so talented. We also have a new addition to the ‘family’, Rosie Mae (Jools’s daughter), who is the youngest in the band – and Dave Edmunds will be the guest star at the Jam House Birmingham show.
* You’ve had the likes of Sam Brown and Ruby Turner on previous orchestra tours and played with Eddi Reader; Alison Moyet is joining you on the upcoming tours... is she someone you’ve tried to work with before? What makes her stand out from the crowd?
This is a great and important first for me and the orchestra, having Alison Moyet with my big band. It is something I’m looking forward to more than anything: 1+1 = 21 which is the amount of people we will have on stage. Alison’s voice is truly unique and has a blues and soul quality that fits perfectly into the Rhythm & Blues Orchestra party.
* Which of the new breed of young female stars would you like to take on tour and why?
I love all the fantastic female singers that have come to the foreground – Duffy, Adele, Amy Winehouse, Paloma Faith. They are all brilliant and all completely different. They’re touching a nerve and what’s great is they have a sense of the big history of music. We would have a blast if they all joined us on tour, but I suspect they might be rather busy with their own commitments.
* Later... with Jools Holland has been such a critical hit... what performances and guests stick in your mind? Who is there that hasn’t played on the show and eluded you?
We’ve had so many great artists on the show that I can’t just pick one. B.B. King was a personal milestone; I am a huge fan and when he came on, sat on his chair by the orchestra and started playing, everything came to life. I was genuinely star-struck.
We haven’t had Bob Dylan on, as far as great legends go – and we haven’t had Rod Stewart. He was supposed to be on the Hootenanny once, but he couldn’t make it in the end. And Aretha Franklin doesn’t travel so she’s unlikely, but she’d be great. Plus lots of dead people – Ray Charles, Bessie Smith, T Bone Walker, Handel, Marie Lloyd. I could go on forever.
* Who inspired you to play piano and rhythm and blues?
My uncle David had an R&B band called The Planets. When I was about eight, I heard them rehearsing for the first time in my grandparents’ living room. My uncle was the bass player, but he knew this piano piece my mother had taught him, ‘St. Louis Blues’. He played it to me that same afternoon and I was instantly fascinated. He encouraged me to try it myself and I found that I could copy him. It felt like all the elements of the universe had come together for the first time, making sense of the chaos.
* What keeps you playing and working?
I feel very privileged and grateful that I make a living out of the music I love. Playing is very rewarding; the more you play the more you understand the dynamic of playing, and the more you understand, the better things sound, and the better things sound, the more you want to learn and the more mysterious it all becomes, and on it goes, it’s a circular thing. Also it’s not just playing within the orchestra, it’s us playing with the audience, and the more you’re used to playing with an audience, the more you can feel whether people are feeling them with you. Some things work well in the studio and some things, no matter how hard you try, you can’t quite communicate, and you can see that in the audience’s body language, or the way they respond.
* What was the last album you bought/listened to?
I was just listening to John Dankworth’s The Vintage Years. He sadly passed away recently and was one of the great composers and jazz performers of the 20th century.
* What is your most prized possession?
My piano. My whole life unfolded and was given shape by the piano. It’s the king of all instruments and playing it is a constant learning process and the key to a wonderful world. All of the arrangements of what I play with my orchestra happen on the keyboard.
* What is the best piece of advice you’ve ever been given?
Don’t ever wear brown shoes with a dinner jacket.