If the term “big band,” especially tied to a pop star, conjures the dreaded image of one of those zoot-suited groups with the word “Daddy” in its name, fear not. Ex-Squeeze keyboardist Holland’s 16-piece outfit (give or take) churns out an eclectic mishmash that rarely resorts to nostalgia, and in fact shows that the roots of rock and roll could well be its future.
With Holland’s two-fisted piano playing and impressive songwriting range matched by saxophonist Phil Veacock’s stellar arranging, that would be enough to ensure a solid album. But Holland is more bandleader and emcee (still hosting his own music show on BBC) than frontman or singer, so he enlisted a couple dozen friends to take center stage on the 22 tracks here – friends like Eric Clapton, Dr. John, Taj Mahal, Mark Knopfler, Van Morrison, David Gilmour, Jamiroquai, and George Harrison, in his last recorded session.
That “Horse To Water,” co-written by Harrison and his son, Dhani, was cut less than two months before George’s death is astonishing, given the ex-Beatle’s spot-on delivery. It, in fact, ranks among the best items in his all-too-sparse catalog of the past 20 years.
Guitar chores on that and most of the CD are handled by the versatile Mark Flanagan, and while much of the focus is on Holland’s piano and the horn arrangements, he shines when he gets the spotlight – on the infectious Paul Carrack turn “It’s So Blue;” on Paul Weller’s superb take on Billy Preston’s “Will It Go Round In Circles;” and the tasteful fills behind Eric Bibb’s beautiful vocal on “All That You Are.” For balance, some of the CD’s highest highs have no guitar to speak of – Dr. John and Holland’s boogie duo, “The Hand That Changed Its Mind;” “Town and Country Rhythm and Blues,” featuring ex-Squeeze mate Chris Difford; and Knopfler’s rockabilly romp, “Mademoiselle Will Decide.” Yes, rockabilly, not to mention Chicago blues, ska, soundtracky pop – all get the big band treatment; it’s not just for swing anymore.
Histrionic vocalist Mica Paris does her best to destroy “I Put a Spell On You,” but David Gilmour’s stinging solo redeems it, as does a great string/horn arrangement. Some covers seem a bit uninspired; certainly Taj Mahal’s talents could be put to better use than yet another version of “Outskirts of Town,” and it’s too bad Mick “Simply Red” Hucknall had to settle for “T-Bone Shuffle.” One would have assumed the same of “I’m Ready,” the Willie Dixon chestnut, but Steve Winwood sounds great here (but when doesn’t he?).
Others better forgotten are a too-loungy ska attempt at “I’m In the Mood For Love” by Jamiroquai; Stereophonics’ nothing-special rendition of the Beatles’ “Revolution;” and John Cale’s hackneyed stab at Johnny Mercer’s “I Wanna Be Around” – the only time, thankfully, the CD resorts to kitsch. Another Willie Dixon retread that needn’t have been mounted is “Seventh Son,” featuring – as if you didn’t expect him – Sting. Can we all just agree to a two-year moratorium on guest appearances by Sting? (Do I hear three?)
The album’s closer, Ray Charles’ “What Would I Do Without You,” features Eric Clapton on guitar and vocals, sounding considerably more inspired than he does on his own records. Which may be Holland’s real role here. After being rocketed from style to style, singer to singer – perusing a CD booklet filled with pictures of Jools with this legend and that (as if having them on his CD wasn’t proof enough that he knows them) – one may well ask, “What’s the unifying thread?” Well, Jools Holland is – the guy whose name is on the CD. He brings all this talent together and, usually, brings out the best in it. And it may be a stylistic crazy quilt, but it’s his crazy quilt.
This article originally appeared in VG‘s April ’02 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.