Although best known -- at least outside of England, where he's recognized as the host of the BBC-TV show Later -- for his stint as keyboardist in the arty pop group Squeeze, Jools Holland's own musical tastes have always been considerably earthier than that band's.
Holland's passion is American boogie-woogie, and his dexterous left hand has the requisite New Orleans authenticity, but he's never possessed a front man's voice.
With that in mind, Holland prefers the role of bandleader/coordinator, in this case putting together a collection showcasing many of his famous friends backed by his own big band. Predictably, the record rises or falls on the contributions of his featured guests.
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Most attention will be focused on the George Harrison track "Horse to the Water," which the former Beatle recorded less than two months before his November 29 death. Co-written by Harrison and his son Dhani -- and the only new Harrison song released in the last decade of his life -- the horn-driven track bears a strong resemblance to Ray Charles' "Unchain My Heart," with Harrison using the lyrics to gently tweak friends -- and even self-appointed servants of God -- who are pointed in the direction of enlightenment, yet choose to reject it. It's a fitting sendoff for Harrison, reaffirming his spiritual preoccupations, but doing it with a lighter, more playful touch than he generally managed on his own records.
Holland has a similar effect on Sting, getting the pompous ex-Policeman to loosen up for a surprisingly swinging take on the Willie Dixon standard "Seventh Son." Van Morrison also gets to the heart of Louis Armstrong's "Back O' Town Blues," and Joe Strummer kicks up some dust with the rowdy throwaway "The Return of the Blues Cowboy."
The problem with Big Band Rhythm & Blues is that too much of it reeks of bland Brit-soul: overcooked and undersung. Paul Weller's continuing quest to become the punk era's Steve Winwood continues on a tepid recasting of Billy Preston's "Will It Go Round in Circles," in which he fights for attention with bleating horns, and ends up sounding like he's auditioning for The Commitments, a decade too late. The record is similarly dogged by the contributions of people like Mick Hucknall and Marc Almond, overmatched mediocrities who aspire to the heights of Otis Redding and Marvin Gaye, but settle firmly into Spandau Ballet territory.
On the other hand, former Velvets bassist John Cale sounds so wildly out of place with his Sinatra-esque effort on the brassy "I Wanna Be Around" that the effect is endearing. Who knew that this avant-garde disciple of LaMonte Young really wanted to be a member of the Rat Pack all along?