Jools Holland Interview

With a forty-year-plus career as a top recording and touring musician, Jools Holland is currently on tour promoting his latest album Pianola Piano and Friends featuring legendary musicians including Herbie Hancock, David Gilmour, Joe Bonamassa and others. The day before the tour began, Jools enjoyed a long chat with Keys Review’s Andy Hughes at the musician’s South London home.

As a piano player Jools, which music do you personally like the best?

I have always loved the music of the 1940’s especially the big band sounds from that time. I loved the time when the lines of genres were being blurred, r ‘n’ b and blues and jazz and gospel were all coming together in a melting pot of sounds. This was before radio programming developed a sense of restriction and some stations or shows only played one or another style or sound, I always recommend that people seek out that music and listen to it, because it informs so much modern music, and people like Big Mama Thornton and Cecil Gant, were an influence on the original rock and roll stars that followed in the 1950’s. Another artist is Arthur ‘Big Boy’ Crudup, Tom Jones and Richard Hawley are big fans of his work.

Let’s go back Jools, what was your start with the piano?

I was very lucky growing up, my parents liked jazz and blues records, and classical music. My grandmother had a pianola in the front room of her home, a 1930’s house in Greenwich where the front room was saved for ‘best’, if someone important called like a doctor or a policeman. The pianola plays as a piano, and it also self-plays special sheet music that is inserted on rolls into the piano mechanism. My grandmother played piano, music hall tunes, and my mother and uncle listened to Sammy Price records, all kinds of boogie-woogie tunes and my uncle could play boogie-woogie piano. Hearing those sounds cemented my relationship with the piano for ever. In a studio or on my own, or in a dressing room or recording studio, the link is there.

The piano is a fabulous instrument and it has given me my passion and my living. My uncle played by ear and because he was from south London, he called it ‘Booogee-Wooogee’ so that was how I pronounced it as well. When we went to New Orleans with Squeeze, I went into a bar where the was a piano and asked if I could play, and the barman asked me what style I played, and I said Booogee-Wooogee, and he said ‘What?’ and then he said, ‘Oh, you mean Buggie Wuggie’ which is how the Americans in the south say it. The roots of blues music are all right there in those early tunes, and it’s great to hook up with and work with musicians who love that style as much as I do.

You take your Rhythm And Blues Orchestra out with you on tour, it must be an expensive undertaking.

It is, but I just love to hear it, and I am fortunate that other people love it too, and will come along and listen to us, which enables me to do it. I had a chat with Ed Sheeran about it, and he said my business model was rubbish! I take thirty musicians out and play medium-sized theatres, he goes out on his own and plays stadiums. But Ed is a musician, he understands why I do it this way, it’s what I love to do.

Listening to your new album, I think the variety of styles used for the different tracks emphasise the versatility of the piano as an instrument, it shows far more variety than people may think.

I think you are absolutely right. The album has Lang Lang, one of the greatest concert pianists in the world, it also has Herbie Hancock, one of the greatest jazz pianists in the world. Herbie plays St. Louis Blues, one of the very first boogie-woogie tracks my uncle taught me to play, but of course, being Herbie, he takes it somewhere else entirely!

If you were shopping for a piano, what would you look for?

That’s an interesting question. In terms of the mechanics of a piano, I can safely say that I know a lot more about cars than I know about pianos. That said, I know what I like when I hear it, and that is always a really good place to start when buying an instrument. All pianos are individual, and they are all different, like the people who play them. If you are new to the piano, and have not played before, you are going to struggle because you have no comparisons to make.

Before you buy, you need to experience different pianos, and find the one that speaks to you, that makes friends with you, and that you make friends with in return. That’s an instinct that will come when you have an idea of what actually appeals to you. I went to Billy Preston’s house once and played his piano, and it did sound a bit jangly, but it felt so comfortable, I really did enjoy playing it, and that is the interaction you are looking for if you are going to buy a piano, because remember, a piano is for life. In my grandma’s time, if you bought a piano, it was a serious investment, not only in terms of cost, but because you knew it would outlive you, and be passed on for a few generations after you.

These days everything has built-in obsolescence things are absolutely not built to last beyond maybe five years, but a piano is for life, and beyond your life so you have to make a good choice and take your time to get it right.

Would you agree that a piano doesn’t have to be the highest quality or make to be a good instrument?

Absolutely I would, yes. I was doing some filming with Reuben Gonzalez the legendary Cuban piano player. We were in Cuba, and he was talking about different pianos he played, and his career. He didn’t speak much English, so we had an interpreter to help us out. So, they bought this piano out for Ruben to play for us, and it was a dreadful old thing, missing keys, wires hanging out of it, or missing, it was a monster. Ruben said something to his interpreter, and the translation was, “Ruben says this piano is shit, but he has played far worse, so he will be happy to play it for you.” And he did, and he made it sing. That’s the mark of a great musician, he or she can take a mediocre or even downright bad instrument, and use their talent to make it sound really good, and Ruben did just that, it was amazing.

The same thing applies with the pianola that my grandmother had, that passed down to my mother, and now to me. People would say it’s old, which it is, but I can make it sing, I love it, and it loves me. The last track on my new album talks about how a piano can come alive when different hands play it, and that’s true. A piano doesn’t have to be worth thousands to be a great instrument, it can be ragged, and still be right.

You are famous as a wonderful boogie-woogie pianist Jools but I imagine you like other styles just as much.

Absolutely. I adore boogie-woogie because of its enormous sense of fun which is infectious. I also love ska and reggae, and great jazz players like Thelonious Monk and Oscar Peterson, and the New Orleans piano styles of people like Professor Longhair and Doctor John.

I learned a very valuable lesson from Doctor John, he was very good to me and he taught me a lot. His contribution on this album is taken from an American TV show I used to do called Sunday Night which I presented with David Sanborn. Doctor John and I talked about the great boogie-woogie pianists that we knew, and he told me that the really great boogie-woogie players are always great piano players. It’s fine to play boogie-woogie and nothing else, but it’s the really great all-round players that play the best boogie-woogie.

As a band leader, group member, and in-demand session player Jools, you have vast experience of recording studios, and the recording process – so do you like to have as many takes as you feel you need to get it right, or are you a ‘one take’ kind of guy?

David Gilmour gave me some good advice, he told me to be sure always to get the first take down on tape, because sometimes that is the best one. It may be a bit ragged, but that doesn’t mean that it’s not actually right. There is a term among recording artists – ‘demo-itis’ where you never manage to get a studio take to sound as good as your original demo. Things can decay if you do them over and over, but some musicians take the approach of taking a piece out on tour with them and ironing out all the kinks, and then taking it into the studio, Count Basie used to do that with his band. But I am a ‘one take’ guy if I can be, get it down while it’s fresh.

And finally, we like advice for our learners who enjoy tips from professional players.

It’s simple, but it’s always true, for any musician – play what you love, love what you play, and love the people you play it for, whether that just be you, your family, friends, or a wider audience. Keep looking for good stuff, and the Internet can help there because there is so much wonderful music out there to find. I always advise people to explore deeply the work of people whose music they enjoy. Ignore the ‘greatest hits’ because that’s not usually where the good stuff is. Play the alums that’s where musicians stretch out and try different interesting things, not when they are looking to make hit singles and get commercial success. Keep looking, and keep finding, that’s part of the pleasure of music.