Jools Holland, pianist, bandleader, singer, composer and television presenter chats with Kevin Cooper about working with Brian Eno, going to Buckingham Palace with Ruby Turner to receive her MBE, his perfect Christmas and his latest album Piano

Jools Holland, OBE, DL is an English pianist, bandleader, singer, composer and television presenter. He was an original member of the band Squeeze and he has worked with many artists including Sting, Eric Clapton, Mark Knopfler, George Harrison, David Gilmour, Magazine and Bono.

Since 1992, he has hosted Later… with Jools Holland, a music-based show aired on BBC2, on which his annual Hootenanny show is based. He also hosts the weekly programme Jools Holland on BBC Radio 2, which is a mix of live and recorded music and general chat and features studio guests, along with members of his orchestra.

He has also written an autobiography entitled Barefaced Lies And Boogie Woogie Boasts.

Whilst busy preparing for Christmas, he took the time to have a chat with Kevin Cooper and this is what he had to say.

Mr Holland how are you today?

Hi Kevin, it’s nice to be speaking to you again. I’m very well thank you how are you?

I am great thank you and let me just thank you for taking the time to speak to me today.

Not at all it’s my pleasure.

I recently reviewed and photographed your show here in Nottingham at the Royal Concert Hall.

Did you really. We always have a great time up there in Nottingham and the Royal Concert Hall is such a wonderful place for us to play. We all do really enjoy the time that we get to spend in Nottingham. There is always such a nice atmosphere whenever we play there.

I suppose that we really should talk about your new album, Piano. I have been playing it for a couple of weeks now and I have to say that I think that it is a wonderful piece of work.

Thank you very much, that is so nice of you to say because I personally feel that every pianist has their own voice. It doesn’t matter at what level you are at or who you are, I like to think that pianists are identifiable simply by their playing. Whether I like it or not, I am instantly recognisable by my playing; that is who I am. Some people like that, some people don’t but I cannot do it any other way. It is what comes out of me naturally I suppose.

Am I correct in saying that you found this album slightly harder to make than you had anticipated?

Yes that’s correct, I actually did find this album more of a challenge than I had first thought that it would be. At first I had thought that it would be quite fun because there is quite a lot of self-study in there. After a while, I realised that I hadn’t been paying attention or really listening to what I was playing, I was just playing without thinking. I found myself having to think about it a lot more but anyway, I am pleased with the result.

I love your interpretation of the Floyd Kramer song Last Date. I think that you have captured the essence of the song perfectly.

Thank you, that’s nice of you to say that and that, is exactly what I was trying to do with that piece. Brian Eno, who as you will no doubt remember was with Roxy Music and who has produced the likes of U2 and Coldplay, and also makes soundscapes for airports. Brian is like an abstract artist with music. I was chatting with Brian about the album and he told me that the person who he admired the most was Floyd Kramer. Floyd’s playing was so understated and so un-busy, he invented a whole new style of playing of his own which I really liked, so Brian and I decided to do a track together. Brian came up with the ambient sound, and I put the piano on top.

It was great because I think that we somehow managed to capture Floyd’s playing but in a modern concept whilst maintaining the understatement of it all. Floyd Kramer was unusual in the fact that he and Ramsey Lewis were amongst the last people who were popular pianists who were modern and poppy in their time.

You have mentioned Brian (Eno), what’s it like having him on board?

It is really great because he is very abstract. What was interesting is that Brian told me to play the piano slightly softer which I did and the interesting thing is that he understands technology incredibly well. We went into a little studio that he knew, recorded the track and after that the piano played itself back to me (laughter). It was then that Brian could put the track back together exactly as he wanted it. It was just like working with a scientist who analysed each bit very carefully. Brian Eno is an amazing man, who approaches things in an abstract way. He is certainly one of the most extraordinary record producers that I have ever worked with. You always have the feeling that whatever you are looking at in your life, if you are thinking of rearranging your rooms, re-editing your book or whatever it was, Brian Eno would be the man to ask.

Are you pleased with just how well the album has been received?

Well to be honest with you, I really don’t know if it has been received so well. What I will say is that we have released the album and I am pleased that some of the people like it (laughter). There is always a worry whenever you release an instrumental record because people tend not to buy instrumental records these days. Therefore it is always harder to make it sell as a record. However, it was important for me to get the record out there as a document. The thing is that most people associate me with the piano, and I am always playing the piano whether I am at home, on the stage, in the recording studio or in the television studio; I am always plugging into this same thing which I have done forever, so I thought that it would be good for me to capture it.

The piano, who is my very dear friend, is always playing a secondary role and becomes the accompanist’s tool rather than the lead instrument so I thought that it would be nice to be able to put it under the spotlight for a while. However, in order to be able to do that that you have to brush it up a little bit (laughter). You have to comb its hair, clean its teeth and straighten its tie (laughter).

The album contains eighteen tracks, eight being your original compositions and ten tracks which are your interpretations of the work of the pianists and composers that you love. How did you select the ten which finally made it onto the album?

Well I have to say that started a very long time ago now. If I ever heard a piano player playing something that bought that piece of music to life, then I would always want to play that piece of music in a slightly different way. For example, when I was growing up I would always hear the blues piano, I would always be listening to Jimmy Yancey, I really loved that music and I always wanted to play something in the vein of what he would do. And of course some people thought that whilst it was marvellous blues piano they also thought that what he was doing was a bit naive, but that is sometimes the hardest thing to play. To be able to play that simply whilst still managing to get all of that emotion into the blues really is something special.

That is all down to the feel of the person who is playing the piano and is one of the things that I wanted to do. What you want the audiences to connect with is the feeling of it all really. Of course you want them to also appreciate the technique but you don’t want it to get in the way with a dazzling array of notes, that’s not what I am after really, so I really did want to cover his piece of music. Freddie Slack is another piano player who I really like and Freddie worked with a big band back in the 1940’s so we decided to do our version of his song, Strange Cargo which has a rather strange, dark feel to it. Last Date which we have already spoken about is our take on Floyd Kramer.

Roll ‘Em is a track by Mary Lou Williams who is a person who I always really did like. Not only did I like her piano playing, I also liked her attitude very much. She was the person who said that most of the piano players sound the same but also added that all piano players have their own voice. She also said that you have got to love what you play and play what you love. She had an incredible vibe about her which made me want to cover something of hers. Then you will find a Sidney Bechet number on the album, and what you have to remember is that he was a soprano saxophone player. I just liked what he played so much that I wanted to play one of his tunes.

So as you can see the choices of songs that have made it onto the album are all based upon the piano players who have at some time inspired me really I suppose. There is also an Erroll Graner tune because I like the way that he played a tune. I always indentified with Erroll because he said “I compose music, I play music but I don’t bother to read or write it” (laughter).

There are two covers that I particularly like, Eruption by Focus and Dr. John’s Dorothy.

Well, thank you very much for that. I should have mentioned those two so well spotted, thank you very much (laughter). Dorothy was written by Dr. John who is a very dear friend of mine and he wrote that piece well over twenty-five years ago now for his mother. So I would like to dedicate that song to all of the mums everywhere. It is such a sweet piece but I don’t actually know how you would describe it. It is a very sweet kind of piano playing but I don’t have the word for it. As you quite correctly say Eruption is by Focus who as you know are a Dutch prog rock group (laughter) and I think that the lead was originally played by the guitar player Jan Akkerman.

I have always liked the tune and thought that it would be great to do it on the piano but I never got round to it. So it really was nice to be able to put it out on this album. It’s an abstract piece but the great thing about music is that there are no rules. If I like a tune I will go home and play it on the piano and then ask myself if it works. If it does then I will go on to think whether I should record this with a full backing track or maybe do it with just the piano. However, whichever path I decide to take, it all has to come from the tune sounding okay on the piano to start with.

Now please don’t take this the wrong way, but whenever I listen to Bumble Boogie I immediately have a vision of an old silent black and white movie where Buster Keaton is trying to rescue the heroine off the railway tracks.

Really, I think that is a great compliment. It is fast and when we play it live there is a lot of it and it is quite a piece to deliver; I think that it has certain strength to it. What is good is that the audiences seem to love it. It is almost as though you can’t keep up with it. I think that I originally heard that piece of music when I was a kid and now just to make the classical music people very cross, I have inserted Bach’s Prelude No. 1 in the middle of it together with some weird effects going on. That particular prelude is, in my opinion, some of the prettiest music that has ever been written.

Being a typical German he could have called it something about love, God, the sun, nature, whatever but no, I just love the fact that being German he just called the piece Prelude No. 1 (laughter). It was a mere number to him (laughter). It is so beautiful and he also said that he had written it in the hopes that it would inspire young people to play the piano. He thought that it was so pretty that they would want to learn to play the piano. I thought, that is good enough for me, I am that person and I will follow this great man.

What would you say has been the best Christmas gift that you have received?

Well, I have to say that the thing is that I have to be very careful because I will say something and then whenever anybody reads this, they will say ‘well hang on a minute; you didn’t mention those really expensive gifts that I got you’ (laughter). So with you being up there in Nottingham I will keep this to a local interest. There is a wonderful man who lives in Nottingham who made me some miniature speed cameras for my model railway. So I would like to thank him because that is one of the best Christmas gifts that I have ever had. That’s pretty abstract; I bet no one has ever said that to you before, and we can all have socks (laughter).

To be honest, of course I love Christmas and I think that it is such a magical time celebrating the birth of Christ which is great, but the present thing, when my children were small I gave them presents but once they were grown up it started to get a little exhausting, and I am always fearful of giving them something that they don’t want; dolls for example (laughter).

What would you say is your favourite Christmas song?

Well there are a few actually. I always like hearing Stevie Wonder’s What Christmas Means To Me. I love that record because of the theme, it’s just so great. Although actually the theme that he talks about are none of the things associated with Christmas at all (laughter). He’s talking about the mistletoe and the chestnuts on the fire, but to be honest, to me it is more about remembering the birth of Christ, the family Christmas, and me doing all of my shopping on Christmas Eve after lunch, coming home with a turkey and a Christmas tree in a Dickensian kind of fashion complete with a cigar (laughter). Stevie never mentions any of that in his song but I just love it, it makes me happy.

I suppose really that the best Christmas song is Handel’s Messiah. That’s a really great one, you can’t knock that. I wish I had written that although Handel didn’t fit it into three minutes (laughter).

What would be your perfect Christmas?

Well, as I touched upon, for a start I like to do all of my shopping on Christmas Eve after a rather long lunch. Then I will pop to the shops and get a few last minute gifts for people knowing that they are not really going to want them and that they are going to rewrap them and give them to someone else for their birthday probably (laughter). Then, for me, it is about being with friends and family together with the warmth and joy that all of that brings, together with relaxing and also committing a few simple acts of kindness to total strangers, giving them the gift’s because you know that your family aren’t going to want them.

I will tell you what I won’t have though, I like having my lunch and dinner at the same time, although I don’t mean having them simultaneously, I won’t suddenly be having my lunch at a different time just because it is Christmas. I really do like to have my Christmas dinner in the evening.

What was the last song or piece of music that made you cry?

That is a great question, let me think. First of all if you were to ask me how I would define a piece of music that is good, it would be the fact that when it was finished you would immediately want to hear it again. So you would put it straight on again and think that it was a really great song or piece of music. Let me think, I was with Imelda May the other evening, she came round to my house and we played Peto Schiffer who is a 1930’s opera singer singing the old French song Chasseur d’Amour which when translated is the Pleasures Of Love. Whoever wrote Can’t Help Falling In Love With You took the melody from the front of that song. It was so crackly, so pretty and we were so pissed it really was lovely (laughter). It really was so enchanting.

I have to ask you what was it like going to Buckingham Palace with Ms Turner to see her receive her MBE?

Well, that was a great treat for me because I didn’t have to say anything; all I had to do was watch. It was so wonderful to see her looking dazzling, it was a great joy. At an event such as that you are surrounded by people who are being honoured for all sorts of things, in different spheres. Often spheres that are far more challenging and important than the things that we are doing, which is making music and enjoying ourselves. There were fireman, policeman, nurses; people who work in far more dangerous professions than we do. However, there was a great feeling there, I think that she had a lot of fans there, and it was just so very touching.

I went with her mum and another of her friends and it was very touching to see her receiving the award. What was really great about it was that everyone else in the room was as pleased as she was. Everybody there thought that it was so great and a really great celebration. Then afterwards we all went and had a great big lunch which was very nice (laughter).

So what next for Jools Holland?

Well, I am going to continue trying to figure out the piano which I feel is a lifetime’s work for me. And then of course I will be getting myself ready for Christmas. More to the point what will you be getting up to at Christmas Kevin?

That’s easy, a nice quiet family Christmas for me.

I have to say that sounds wonderful.

I was recently speaking to Glenn Tilbrook here in Nottingham and when he knew that I was going to be speaking to you he asked me to pass on his best as he hasn’t seen you or spoken to you for a while.

Glenn is great and he is one of the greatest composers that we have ever had. He really is great.

I have been trying to find a copy of your album Solo Piano for a while now and I have finally found a copy on Amazon today which is currently available for £152.

Bloody hell, how can they sell it so cheap (laughter)?

Mr. Holland on that note let me once again say thank you for taking the time to speak to me, it’s been a pleasure once again.

Thank you Kevin, you make sure that you have a great Christmas and I look forward to speaking to you again. Bye for now.