He may have been a member of Squeeze during their glory days, but to most people nowadays, Jools Holland is best known as the affable host of the BBC’s great music program, Later . . . With Jools Holland. He’s also been playing his own music regularly, with a big band he’s fine-tuned over the years, but that facet of his career has been largely ignored on this side of the Atlantic, until now, thanks to a star-laden album, which includes, both sadly, and fortuitously for Holland, a Beatle’s final song. Jools Holland’s Big Band Rhythm & Blues, which has a whopping 22 songs featuring a whole slew of guest artists, is a real musical mishmash, and for the most part, a pleasurable one, sounding like an episode of Later . . ., a big, raucous jam session.
The songs on Holland’s album can be filed into four categories: great, very good, tolerable, and outright ridiculous. The great song I’m talking about, of course, is George Harrison’s masterful “Horse to the Water”, and justifiably, it is the main reason people in North America have been seeking out this album in the first place. “Horse to the Water” is a typically dry look back on life by the Quiet Beatle, a song made all the more bittersweet by Harrison’s knowledge he wouldn’t be alive for very much longer. Co-written with his son Dhani, Harrison looks back on life, in a similar vein as Bob Dylan’s own baroque masterpiece “Things Have Changed” two years ago. Recorded less than two months before he succumbed to cancer, Harrison’s voice sounds startlingly weak as he intones, “You can have it all staked out in front of you / But it still don’t make you think.” He might have been ill, but George still had his marvelous sense of humor, and his trademark dry wit is present in the last verse of the song, in which he tells a story of a confrontation with a Bible-beating preacher about God’s realization, but is rebuked by the preacher, who says “We ain’t got time for that / First you must hear the evils of fornication.” “Horse to the Water” acts as a continuation of “Think for Yourself” some 30-odd years later, a fitting final message from George to the world.
As for the very good songs, they’re not in the same league as Harrison’s tune, but they’re still immensely pleasurable. The best of this lot are John Cale’s surprising, balls-out, Las Vegas lounge act treatment of “I Wanna Be Around”, and Marc Almond’s gorgeous, soaring “Say Hello, Wave Goodbye”. Mark Knopfler contributes a whimsical, rockabilly original in “Mademoiselle Will Decide”. Sam Brown croons beautifully on the languid “Valentine Moon”, while Joe Strummer spins a gonzo piano blues yarn on “The Return of the Blues Cowboy”. Dr. John (“The Hand That Changed Its Mind”), Van Morrison (“Back O’ Town Blues”), and Taj Mahal (“Outskirts of Town”), all sound as great as they always do. Mica Paris, accompanied by David Gilmour on guitar, deliver a terrific version of “I Put a Spell on You”, and Stereophonics perform a much, much better cover of the Beatles’ “Revolution” than the weak, by-the-numbers version the Stone Temple Pilots released late last year. Suggs brings some Madness-like energy to “Oranges and Lemons Again”, while Jamiroquai sings a bouncy reggae rendition of “I’m in the Mood for Love”.
There are only a few bad efforts on the album, and thankfully, they are overshadowed by so many other good performances. At the top, or should I say bottom, of the list is Sting’s laughable, accountant-in-a-karaoke-bar performance of Howlin’ Wolf’s “Seventh Son”. The stale adult contemporary singer shows, in disturbing fashion, how he’s completely lost the plot as an artist over the past fifteen years. It sounds as awful as, well, Sting singing a Howlin’ Wolf song. Almost as bad is Eric Clapton’s performance of Ray Charles’ “What Would I Do Without You”, in which the equally vapid artist just goes through the motions, sounding more easy-listening than soulful. An instrumental version by Clapton may have worked a whole lot better. Other songs that fail to impress are Paul Weller’s uninspired cover of Billy Preston’s “Will It Go Round in Circles” and Paul Carrack’s tepid “It’s So Blue”.
In the middle of all this is Holland himself, who plays piano on all tracks. He’s obviously an accomplished blues/boogie woogie player, but he sometimes lets his own keyboard noodling get the best of him, which takes the listener’s attention away from some of the guest vocalists. It’s when he takes a back seat to the guest artists that the album shines. Nobody likes a show-off, and thankfully, Holland keeps the self-indulgence to a minimum.
Jools Holland’s Big Band Rhythm & Blues, which, in a bizarre marketing strategy by Rhino Records, replaced the cute UK title Small World Big Band, is a nice, casual album, suitable for folks looking for some decent, old-fashioned R&B to add to their CD collections. For Beatles fans, however, this CD is a must-own; it may have only the one Harrison song, but it’s such a great, evocative piece of work that it, alone, totally justifies buying the album.