AS an advocate for the sheer joy of playing music to a live audience, there are surely few who can match Jools Holland.
onversation with the host of BBC Two’s long-running music show Later zips along when matters turn to touring with his own big band, the Jools Holland Rhythm and Blues Orchestra.
“It’s an incredible gift, music,” he says. “There are so many people that love playing; to play professionally if you do it and love the music you play you want to do it as much as possible.
“Lots of people do it and don’t get paid. I would too. It becomes both a habit and a joy. Also you feel or hope if you are writing or making things out of wood or gardening, you are slowly getting better at it, you want to do it more. That’s the thing with music.”
Next month the 56-year-old pianist brings the Rhythm and Blues Orchestra to Nostell Priory, near Wakefield, following in the footsteps of Elton John and Van Morrison, who’ve also played outdoor concerts in the picturesque grounds of the Palladian house.
Holland loves the great outdoors as a concert setting.
“I think they can be amongst the most magical places for people to play. Hundreds if not thousands of years ago our forefathers really enjoyed a nice knees up in a clearing in the forest with their friends. This is the closest we modern humans can get to it.”
Once a feature of the age of jazz and swing from the 1920s to the 1940s, big bands are a rarity these days. Certainly few are touring the world as regularly as Holland’s, nearly two decades since their formation.
The only big bands he’d seen were on film, he says, so the coming together of the orchestra was a gradual process.
“What’s happened is it evolved into a big band. It’s very difficult for anybody including me to start a big band. For one, finding the people would be difficult. The important thing I realised watching Count Basie, Lionel Hampton and Duke Ellington, was the fact that it was mostly the same people in the band for a long time. They’re not just reading music, they’re thinking the same things. They knew where it was coming from, they did not have to use too many words to explain what was going on. I realise that now.
“The other thing I learned from looking at them,” he adds, “was they always had an element of the blues about them. These bands were led by a pianist, which I identified with, and they had to do lots of shows to make themselves strong. If they did one or two shows a month it would not be enough. It’s like being a sportsman, you have to stay in trim.
“Sometimes they make people dance or sometimes they make them want to cry – they’re the people I learned most from, not from having seen them, they’re before my time, I’ve not seen them in person.”
The rock on which the Rhythm and Blues Orchestra is founded is Gilson Lavis, Holland’s longtime friend from their days together in the new wave band Squeeze.
The pianist describes him as “the nuclear reactor at the centre of it”.
“He’s a special drummer and an extraordinary person as well. Without question that sets the pulse and the tempo of what we are doing. Also he’s a very spiritual, kindly person, from that not only does the pulse of the rhythm come, it’s a very good thing for the pulse of the orchestra.”
A regular feature of the orchestra’s tours has been their guest vocalists. At Nostell Priory they will have two.
Marc Almond is “an amazing torch singer who has great songs,” says Holland. “With the orchestra, put the two things together and it really adds up to four instead of two.”
Former Spice Girl Melanie C, he adds, “has a unique and amazing voice. She has a great take on popular music. We do a Stevie Wonder song, I Wish, and we make it our own. That’s the point about both of them as artists – they’re very comfortable with what we are doing.”
Later, the TV series that Holland has presented since 1992, is now in its 44th series. The key to its longevity, he believes is: “I think it realises that essentially the show is not about me or the show, it’s the servant of the song and the artists. That’s why it’s managed to stay on. It’s not about anything else other than music or the artists.
“We’re not trying to make a competition out of it, we’re not trying to make some novelty television to create false arguments. It’s purely about the music. Also one thing we are aware of is if something mainstream is everywhere else you can have things that other shows can’t.
“We have folk, blues and jazz on which would not have a place anywhere else, it’s great. You can have legends as well. It means that we can capture both people on their way up and towards the end of their careers as they get older. The show has recorded a lot of that stuff. It’s become stronger. I’m delighted and proud of what we have done.”
Jools Hooland’s Rhythm and Blues Orchestra play at the Flashback Festival on Sunday, June 15. For tickets tel: 0845 075 6101 or visit http://www.ukeventsandproduction.com/flashback-nostell.html. June 14’s bill features headlined by UB40, Heather Small and Jason Donovan.