Jools in the Crown
Renowned blues pianist and TV presenter Jools Holland has a few things to say about wacky camera angles, the demise of the pub pianist, and why digital pianos may be resurrecting the family singsong. All together now...
Jools Holland is used to leading a double life. His success in the early eighties as keyboard player with million-selling pop band Squeeze and co-presenter of Channel 4's award-winning music show The Tube set a pattern for his career which continues to this day.
On the one hand, his quirky, whimsical personality has made him a natural for television, where among other things he has hosted the resurrected Juke Box Jury on BBC2, written and presented a series of shows on the music of New Orleans, Memphis and Nashville for the BBC, and co-hosted NBC's acclaimed Sunday Night show with David Sanborn in New York. His most recent TV project, a late-night music show called, appropriately enough, Later with Jools Holland, recently finished its first run on BBC2, but will return for another series in the New Year. Jools is also planning another of his musical odysseys to America, this time either to Chicago or Kansas in order to trace the history of the blues.
At the same time his undoubted talents as a blues, boogie woogie and stride pianist have seen him working with many well-known artists, including Al Green, Dr John, The The, George Harrison, Sting and The Fine Young Cannibals. He has also recorded three albums under his own name, the most recent of which, The A-Z Geographer's Guide to the Piano, was released in November 1992 on Alter Ego Records. Jools left Squeeze (for the second time) in 1991 to concentrate on his own band, and nowadays when he's not busy with yet another television venture he likes to gig with the band as often as possible.
"Touring is an important part of my income," he says, as we sit in the front room of his large house in south-east London. "We do jazz festivals and theatres all over the country. We don't make a big noise about it, we just go out and do them - it's not like, 'here's our big three-week tour.' I'd rather take on more than less, even if it means playing shows that aren't necessarily that big, because it keeps the band together and it improves everybody's playing. It's like... the more you do, the more you can do."
It's a philosophy central to the Jools Holland scheme of tilings. The wall planner at Helicon Mountain, the office and 24-track recording studio facility which he owns nearby, reveals very few rest days. It's here that we meet up on one of those days so that Jools can show me around the studio before we walk the short distance to his house.
From the front, Helicon Mountain (named after Mount Helicon, home to the Greek muses, incidentally) looks like a disused railway station. In practice, this is an elaborate conceit, reinforced by the building's address - The Station, Station Terrace Mews - and its location overlooking a real station at which stop real Network Southeast trains on their way to and from central London. In fact, the building is a two-storey conversion from a row of lock-up garages, but somehow this doesn't have quite the same romantic appeal.
Once past the video security system on the front door, the unwary visitor is faced with further visual trickery, for the ground-floor studio entrance is cunningly disguised as a bookcase. This swings open to reveal a spacious live room, in one corner of which stands a Yamaha C5 grand piano. The Yamaha is one of two grand pianos which Jools owns — the other, a Steinway, sits in his house.
A sliding door leads into a 'natural light' control room which contains, among other things, a Soundtracs Quartz 48-channel desk, a Saturn 824 24-track tape machine, and an Atari 1040ST computer with Steinberg Pro24 and C-Lab Creator sequencing software.
Despite its comfortable, almost homely feel, Helicon Mountain is actually a commercial venture: among recent clients who have successfully negotiated the bookcase are Robert Palmer, Diesel Park West, Ruby Turner and The Christians. Jools himself uses the studio to record his own albums. He explains that he's quite at home with the more traditional aspects of recording, but prefers to leave sequencer operation to someone else.
"When I first started, it was just me with a little four-track in my living room, and it was through necessity that I learnt how to work it," he recalls. "Then I got an eight-track, a 16-track and finally a 24-track. I got to the point where I could sit down at a desk, record something, play it back, add a bit of reverb, compress it - whatever would be necessary.
"But with the computer there's never been the necessity for me to learn it, because somebody's always come in and worked it for me. I can just say 'Okay, let's get this rhythm going...', and because of that it all looks a bit difficult to me. I suppose when eventually I'm left all on my own and have to use the computer I'll just be very sorry!
"Actually, I'd like to do a completely sequenced thing, with lots of percussive things going on. I think that would be interesting - and to do it mathematically, rather than instinctively. I'd like to have that mathematical feel, like a Philip Glass sort of thing, but then put something on top of it that is sort of the poetic line, so you've got the contrast of the two. I don't think anybody would want to hear it, but I'd like to make it!"
The studio tour over, Jools leads the way to his house. Once settled in the front room with a cup of tea in hand, he talks about his latest attempt at presenting music on television. Later is the complete antithesis of flashy music shows like Top of the Pops and The ITV Chart Show, with fast editing and fancy graphics ousted in favour of a 'low profile' approach to filming.
For those who missed the first series, the format consisted of three or four live groups, set up 'in the round' in BBC2's Late Show studio, taking it in turns to play one or two numbers each, with spoken introductions and links and the occasional piano accompaniment being provided by Jools. Each show was recorded 'as live' a couple of hours before transmission, so allowing for the occasional retake or technical problem-solving.
"There was nothing wacky about it, it was very straightahead," observes Jools. "It didn't need any flashing lights, or jazzy camera angles looking up people's noses and bottoms and stuff, it just needed the simplicity of the people performing.
"I think music on television is often treated as a very secondary thing - for instance on The Word. Or people are worried that the viewers will immediately get bored, so they make it wacky or add something to make it 'sexy', as people say in television. I think, in fact, BBC2 is the right place for a show like Later, because they are about public broadcasting. Music is a thing of the arts, so it's good to take it seriously."
Away from the TV studio, Jools' third solo album, The A-Z Geographers' Guide to the Piano, was released recently on Alter Ego records. Each of the 15 instrumental tracks on the album represents Jools' musical evocation of a different location in London - a concept which gives rise to a variety of musical moods. Boisterous romps like 'Newgates Knocker', 'Bird Cage Walk (Doing The)' and 'Rotten Row Boogie' are balanced by more pensive tracks like 'Temple Bar' and 'Wapping Steps', while interspersed among these group tracks are short piano interludes such as the ominous low-register rumblings of 'Canary Wharf' and the eerie echoing lines of 'Seven Dials'.
The idea for the album came to Jools while he was indulging in one of his favourite pastimes: driving around London in his silver Jaguar V12 listening to music on the radio.
"I've got five presets on my car wireless: one is Radio One, two is GLR, three is Kiss FM, four is Radio Four and five is Radio Three," he reveals. "If I'm bored for a second I'll push one button, if a traffic jam's getting me down I'll push another... Sometimes I'll just keep flicking through them.
"If you're out in the wild countryside, inevitably you end up with classical music, I think. Through cities late at night it's a bit of rhythm 'n' blues - call me a traditionalist! If I'm stuck in a traffic jam and feeling frustrated, something soothing and relaxing is good - like the Penguin Cafe Orchestra, they're nice. You can just look at the buildings, look at the people, and it becomes more of a film for you... I'm easily influenced by music, you see. Like, if I have some big-band music on, I find that it makes me drive faster and people are bibbing me!
"Where am I driving to? That's the question, really. It's people like me that create traffic jams, 'cos we're not going anywhere, we're just driving around listening to music! It's not the destination but the journey, isn't it."
Jools began learning to play the piano at the age of eight. However, it wasn't classical piano music which grabbed his attention.
"My uncle showed me the rudiments of boogie woogie, which is why I'm rooted in the blues," he says. "The first sequence I learnt was the St Louis Blues, and I just kept playing it and playing it, trying to work out other things to play around it.
"Really I'm a jazz pianist, 'cos boogie woogie is one avenue, and stride piano is certainly the first jazz that was called jazz. The first records I heard were of jazz and gospel music, but then of course as a child I also listened to pop music, because I liked The Beatles and Tamla Motown - all that sort of thing. Because I've been associated with pop music quite a lot - I suppose you could call Squeeze a pop band - that's what people think of me as. Really I'm a jazz pianist in a pop world."
As a teenager, Jools gained a good practical grounding in music by playing the piano in local pubs alongside guitarist and subsequent Squeeze cohort Glenn Tilbrook.
"I was about 16, I suppose," he recalls. "We'd go in with a load of our friends that looked eighteen, and we'd do Beatles songs and get a party atmosphere going. It was all quite harmless, and we were quite good at it. A lot of the time the landlord would say 'That's really good, I'll give you a job.' and he'd give us ten quid to come and play.
"There were four or five different pubs we'd go and play in. It was good training. It's like The Beatles, they all said that their big training was in Hamburg, because they used to have to play for four hours a night, so they'd have to learn lots of songs. It was the same for us, we had to learn all these songs. Someone asked us for something so we'd learn it."
Go into a pub these days, of course, and you're more likely to find a couple of record decks or the dreaded karaoke machine than you are a piano. Jools mourns the demise of the pub pianist: "It's really magical when you get a good pianist belting away in the background. There was an old man in Greenwich called Vic who I used to go and see a lot, he was brilliant. But sadly that's gone altogether, now. I suppose it's cheaper to put records on, but also it's probably because there just aren't the pianists about.
"It used to be that the piano was a thing everybody had in their front rooms - before the war it was like the television set and the video. Everybody would gather around it at Christmas... So it was a thing that people learnt."
It's easy to lay blame for the demise of this family tradition at the door of technology, in the form of such modern-day attractions as television, video recorders and computer games consoles. But what technology taketh away it can also giveth back. Jools feels that the popularity of digital pianos and keyboards is leading to a resurgence of interest in piano playing. As he puts it: "These days, if you grow up with a digital piano in your front room, which people are doing, then you'll become a pianist through using that."
Having grown up playing acoustic piano, Jools himself feels most at home with the traditional instrument. However, he concedes that digital pianos are getting ever closer to the 'real thing' "both in sound and touch".
"The new Casio digital piano I've got is very good, I'd use it in the studio, and I've used it live a few times where we've had a smaller stage," he reveals. "I think a good modern digital piano will feel like the Yamaha acoustic over in the studio, which is much brighter and slightly heavier to play than the old Steinway piano I have here. In my view the best pianos are things like old Steinways, though, because they've been played a lot so they're worn in and comfortable, very soft and easy to play. That's the other thing with an acoustic piano, it's wood and metal and tension, a lot of physical stuff going on.
"Apparently Casio took a brand new Steinway piano to bits and analysed it, which is a very Japanese thing to do, but what they should have done was take a thirty-year-old Steinway to bits, one that Oscar Peterson's had in his house for ten years or whatever. If they could get that spot on... It's a bit like you need an Ageing button on digital pianos!"
Although an accomplished pianist, Jools devotes a couple of hours each day to practice. However, he's not really a scales and arpeggios man - he'd rather spend the time honing his improvisational skills.
"I'll sometimes warm up with a couple of scales to get my fingers working," he says, "but a lot of what I'm doing is sitting down and improvising in different ways around things, rather than doing structured practice.
"I'd say my practicing is more about pushing myself to do something that I wouldn't normally do, or would find a little bit difficult to do. That way I'll perhaps stumble across something which sounds good. I might take a simple line or tune and think 'How would Floyd Cramer, the country pianist, play this, what would Thelonius Monk do with this, what would Count Basie or Fats Waller do with it?' Not that I can play like all these people, but you can do an assimilation, take a simple tune and improvise around it.
"It's an ever-forward situation, which is good, I think. Some mornings you get up and play and you feel as though you have got a little bit further along the road. It's like anything, really, if you keep at it then eventually you'll notice that you've jumped onto the next level without thinking too much about it."
As he poses for photographs seated at his Steinway, Jools launches into some impromptu boogie woogie. As his slender fingers dance over the keys in a blur of motion, I'm struck by the sheer physicality and energy of his playing. In his hands this 'old' music is alive and vibrant, a living, breathing language. Jools has absorbed the syntax and now he's adding to the vocabulary, drawing on musical influences which didn't exist when blues and boogie first emerged. The avante-garde jazz pianist Cecil Taylor counts as one of his more unlikely influences.
With his upcoming TV project tracing the history of the blues in mind, Jools has a final thought on why the blues will always be a relevant form of musical expression.
"Any musician who's really good in whatever field should be able to do a good blues number," he opines. "I've often thought that if you have an analogy between music and visual art, something like a big band or an orchestra is like a huge oil painting, and if you have a solo instrument it's like a black-and-white sketch, and the blues is like a self-portrait. You can look at that and see what sort of a self-portrait a musician does, and that tells you what they're about, I think."
Interview by Simon Trask
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