The piano man

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Ahead of this month’s Yorkshire dates with his Rhythm and Blues Orchestra, Jools Holland spoke to Duncan Seaman.

Autumn tours by Jools Holland’s Rhythm and Blues Orchestra have become a regular fixture in Yorkshire’s musical calendar. In the 20 years that the pianist, band leader and broadcaster has been bringing his 20-piece ensemble to the region’s concert halls he’s been accompanied by guest vocalists including Marc Almond, Richard Hawley and Roland Gift.

The additional singers at this month’s concerts in Harrogate, York and Sheffield are Pauline Black and Arthur ‘Gaps’ Henderson of veteran 2 Tone band The Selecter – and Holland is especially looking forward to their collaboration.

“Two years ago it was very sad because we lost Rico Rodriguez, who was a legendary trombonist from Kingston, Jamaica, who’d been to Alpha School and played with Bob Marley and everything,” he explains. “He was in his 80s but he was an important part of our orchestra because he brought out the element which I love which is that of ska and that skanking reggae sound that we lean towards sometimes. Bringing The Selecter, with Pauline Black and Gaps Henderson, helps us re-focus on that side of us.

“For some reason the music of ska and the music of early r’n’b have the same effect on me,” he adds. “If I hear early ska music or the music of Wynonie Harris or Fats Domino it makes me feel really great and I want to dance around.

“Although they have different names they seem to have the same effect and I think that’s what I’m always looking for in music – that thing that makes me feel ‘Hey, that sounds great’.”

Jools Holland

Jools Holland

The Rhythm and Blues Orchestra will also be playing songs from the album Holland made last year with his longtime friend Ruby Turner, the ‘queen of boogie woogie’. The 58-year-old pianist recognises they have a special chemistry.

“Ruby is the same age as me and she’s like the sister I never had. That friendship comes also from playing lots of places together but I think we come from a similar place – we’re both very spontaneous and untrained musicians. We were trained by playing for people and the thing about Ruby is she’s one of the only people who comes from this place, when you heard the early church gospel music and the blues music.

“When she comes onto the stage it’s like a tornado. There’s nobody else really like that, that’s why she’s like somebody from another age. She really is a unique person, so I’m very happy just to be in the same room with her playing piano.”

Speaking of the instrument which has dominated his life since the age of eight, the presenter of the long-running BBC music show Later reveals he’s currently working on a piano record. “It’s quite a thing because it’s like looking in the mirror for a bit too long and you realise it’s not very comfortable but then you realise it’s what I’ve always done,” he says. “It’s really looking at that relationship between me and the piano.”

Ruby is the same age as me and she’s like the sister I never had. That friendship comes also from playing lots of places together but I think we come from a similar place – we’re both very spontaneous.

Jools Holland

“Some [of the instrumentals] are in the jazz world, some have got some hints of classical music, I recorded one with bird song. There was a classical composer called Olivier Messiaen, he was French and he was a devout Catholic and he was imprisoned by the Gestapo. When he was in a prisoner of war camp he heard bird song and when he came out after the war he wrote music based on bird song. I thought I would go in the garden and play with the birds and it’s interesting, you start playing and the birds answer you back, it’s quite a strange experience.”

Holland also worked with Brian Eno, formerly of Roxy Music, who produced some of U2’s best known records. “He does sound landscapes, so some are a little bit abstract and others are tributes to some of the great piano players I love,” Holland says. “There are elements of Erroll Garner and Jimmy Yancey but what comes out ultimately is me, I suppose.”

The album is due out this month. In the meantime Holland is busy with the 49th series of Later on BBC2. “It’s fantastic that it’s stayed on, not just because it’s kept me working all that time, but also for music because it’s captured lots of different sorts of music,” he says. “If it had been on any other channel they would have been saying, ‘That’s all very well but why are you having these people on who aren’t famous?’

“I think the very important thing about our show is every week it’s a mix. You want somebody who’s very famous this week, you want somebody who’s a great legend from the past but you also want somebody who’s brand new who you’re introducing and giving a chance to, and you also want somebody who is very well known in their own world, maybe folk or jazz or world music, but perhaps isn’t known to a broader public. You want all of those elements and if you were doing it anywhere else except on the BBC they’d be turning round saying ‘Why don’t you just have the famous people? Why are we bothering with these other ones because that’s what people want to see’. Because of that I think we’ve built up a great library of a lot of important music which nowadays there isn’t a home for anywhere else on the television.

“I’m proud of what we’ve done and amazed that we’ve stayed on. I would attribute it not to me in the slightest but to the fact that the show has tried to remember that the music is much more important than the show.”

Jools Holland’s Rhythm and Blues Orchestra play at Harrogate International Centre on November 11, York Barbican on November 12 and 13 and Sheffield City Hall on December 1. www.joolsholland.com

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Next spring Jools Holland will be playing a few shows, including Scarborough Spa on May 18, with a small ensemble.

“I’ve done this a couple of times and it’s something I really enjoy, it really helps with my piano playing,” he says. “We go out and it helps me work out what songs are worth doing.

“I go out with just some singers and play in smaller theatres in Europe. I can make it up as I go along and improvise a great deal. It’s small and intimate but great fun.

“Ruby comes out and sings and we have Louise Marshall and [Holland’s daughter] Mabel Ray. There’s a great atmosphere.”

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