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(Rhino Records As broadcast on WVIA-FM 1/9/2002)
The world of pop music is very much part of show business, and as such, there as much a culture of stars and celebrities as there is in the movies or television. And for generations, recordings have billed themselves on their star power -- combining two or more musical celebrities on one song or album. More of than not, the musical combination is one undertaken with the market in mind, rather than real musical collaboration. But there are exceptions, and I think this week's CD qualifies as an interesting, and indeed very ambitious venture into combining a remarkable number of well-known musical artists in a single recording, in a record that is also a lot of fun to listen to. It's the newest CD by veteran British keyboard man Jools Holland, called Jools Holland's Big Band Rhythm & Blues, and it has guest appearances by not less than 22 different significant, mostly British, musical figures, including Eric Clapton, Steve Winwood, Van Morrison, Sting, and what is reputed to be the last recording by George Harrison recorded a bit more than a month before his death in November. In addition to the noted guests, the CD lives up to its title with no less than 52 studio musicians also providing accompaniment at various times, including a big band and a string orchestra.
Jools Holland is best-known for his tenure as keyboard player in the British band Squeeze. But since then, he has had a program on the BBC called "Later with Jools Holland" a music show spotlighting various well-known guests, so that provided him with the contacts that eventually led to this CD. He also is a big fan of early rock & roll, R&B and soul, and his own recordings over the years have reflected that. So those two facets were combined on this CD, with the guests doing both original songs and old standards in the style. In some cases, it's a bit out of character for the guest, such as Sting or Soft Cell's Marc Almond, but at others, such as for Taj Mahal, Dr. John, and Eric Clapton, it's a perfect fit. And throughout, there is a spirit of good fun, and that really sets this CD apart from other star-studded records, which usually reduce to lowest-common-denominator light-pop. It's interesting hearing Van Morrison doing a Louis Armstrong song, or John Cale doing some Vegas style crooning. Obviously, some parts are more successful than others, but the lighthearted nature of the CD, in which a lot of stars are apparently having fun, makes up for any of the less satisfying parts of this very generous, 80-minute CD.
Ever since the 1960s, when the British Blues phenomenon happened, with young English musicians essentially re-packaging and bringing back to American rock audiences the great American art form of the blues, the Brits have had a distinctive approach which has evolved into its own style, but still has designs on the original American recordings. Jools Holland, in his recent releases, shows that dichotomy, with echoes of the British Blues bands, but also a distinctly American retro sound, though like other Brits, he sometimes goes a little too far, with too many horns, guitars cranked up a bit too much, tempos taken a bit too fast, and not enough space in the music -- something that is essential in the blues. This CD has the same kind of pumped-up, frenetic sound, and that can make this record wear a bit on the listener at times, especially after the novelty of all the stars on the same CD fades, but Holland does mix the album up stylistically some, and overall, it's an admirable recording, and would be even if there were not as many big names on it.
Though Holland is a decent vocalist, he defers to his guests most of the time on this CD. He does sing a verse here and there, but for the most part, the guests get to sing the songs, quite of few of which were collaborative compositions between Holland and the respective guest.
The track with Sting opens the CD. It's the old Willie Dixon blues classic Seventh Son, and it's interesting hearing the normally sophisticated Sting getting down with the blues, and doing a very respectable job. The track illustrates the kind of big-production sound that dominates the CD. <<>>
That is followed by what turns out to be its most poignant track, Horse to the Water, featuring George Harrison, and recorded in October 2001, the month before his death. It's a song Harrison co-wrote with his son Dhani, and while it has the upbeat sound of the rest of the CD, the cryptic, philosophical lyrics made the piece fascinating. Harrison, considering his declining health at the time, sounds in good form. <<>> The guitar solo is presumably by George. <<>>
One of the more unusual choices of guests is Joe Strummer, a founding member of the Clash. His guest slot comes on an original joint composition by Strummer and Holland called The Return of the Blues Cowboy. It's also the track with the least instrumentation. Despite the some tasteful piano work by Holland, Strummer shows he is not exactly a blues singer. <<>>
Dr. John appears on another original joint composition with Holland called The Hand That Changed Its Mind. Holland does the introductory lead vocal, before the Dr. John makes his entrance. Musically, the track perhaps best captures the spirit of jump band blues that for which Holland seems always to be striving. <<>>
There are some slower tracks, including an unexpected treatment of Screamin' Jay Hawkins' classic I Put a Spell on You, sung by Mica Paris with guitar from Pink Floyd's David Gilmour. The result quite engaging, though the addition of the string section does go a bit over the top. <<>>
Another of the most fascinating combinations is the track featuring Van Morrison, the Louis Armstrong composition, Back o' Town Blues. The arrangement maintains the spirit of the original music, though like a lot of Holland's work, the tempo is a little too fast and there are too many horns. <<>>
Dire Straits founder Mark Knopfler appears in a straight rockabilly arrangement of his song called Mademoiselle Will Decide. Although Knopfler has explored the edges of this style with Dire Straits, this track works particularly well. <<>>
The CD is not without some disappointments. One of my favorite acoustic bluesmen, Eric Bibb, makes an appearance on All That You Are, a song he co-wrote with Holland. The song's lyrics lend themselves to the kind of intimate arrangements that mark Bibb's own albums, but the arrangement here is more along the lines of a Phil Spector production, and it just sounds overblown. <<>>
Steve Winwood, who got his start in the British Blues days, appears on what is definitely one of the CD's highlights, I'm Ready, another Willie Dixon song, first recorded by Muddy Waters. <<>>
John Cale, who first came to fame as a member of the Velvet Underground, appears on I'll Be Around an old Johnny Mercer song, done as a kind of Sinatra/Vegas production. It definitely leaves one scratching one's head wondering if it was serious, or done as high camp. It doesn't quite work either way. <<>>
The CD ventures into some ska on two tracks. One features Jamiroquai doing another Tin Pan Alley standard I'm in the Mood for Love. Despite the interesting concept, the result has a kind of perfunctory sound, never really catching fire. <<>>
The final track features Eric Clapton in a soulful performance of Ray Charles' What Would I Do without You. In this case all the horns and strings work well, and Clapton is in great form. <<>>
Even among all-star recordings, Jools Holland's Big Band Rhythm & Blues is impressive for its roster of special guests, who also include Taj Mahal, Paul Weller, Chris Difford, Holland's former band-mate in Squeeze, The Stereophonics, and Mick Hucknall. The fact that the music is fun, and generally unpretentious also sets this project apart. About the only drawback is the fact that the CD very much lives up to his title. Often the horn and string sections can be a little overwhelming often to the point of being musically bombastic. Fifty-two backing musicians can be a bit much at times, and the music can have a kind of in-your-face quality than makes one want to take at least one intermission in the course of the hour and twenty minutes of the CD.
That pushy quality also extends to the album's sonics. The mix is heavily compressed and almost constantly loud, even when the music tries to slow down. Sometimes that results in noticeable distortion on the vocals, and it also contributes to a somewhat fatiguing sound -- as interesting as it is, I felt I needed to take a break from listening after a while, especially considering the CD's length. Some restraint in both the scale of the musical arrangements and the volume of the mix would have helped a great deal.
Even in these days of media-driven celebrity culture, it's rare to get as many well-known artists on a single CD. But Jools Holland's Big Band Rhythm and Blues despite a few lapses, is an album that's both fascinating and a lot of fun.
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