Jools Holland is one tough piano player. From the blues-drenched solos he played during his time in Squeeze ("Pulling Mussels," anyone?), to his two-fisted pianistic proddings on his famed BBC TV show Later, the legendary British musician has never shied away from an 88-key duel.

But Holland is more than just a prodigious pianist. He's on an ever-constant search for new sounds to inspire him. "You hear something and sticks in your head," he tells me. "There’s always something new to discover. And that’s the great thing about music." In fact, Holland actually remembered that he had seen me accompany the jazz singer Jimmy Scott on piano during a tour stop in London years ago. "I saw you with him!" he remarked enthusiastically. Nothing gets by this musical master.

While making plans to perform in the US after a long hiatus (February 1-4, 2018 at the Blue Note in New York City), Holland talked to me about his early influences, and how the piano remains a never-ending source of inspiration.

How is it possible that you haven’t toured the U.S in over two decades?

I suppose it’s been because we’ve been so busy in Europe and the UK, and also, for the last twenty years I’ve evolved into a big band. We can take that around into big places in Europe, but we can’t do that in America, because nobody’s heard of us! It would have been prohibitively expensive. But recently I’ve been doing things with just a small outfit. So that made it all work, and I thought it would be lovely to come back. A lot of the music I love originates from there.

You play the piano with a great deal of musical gravitas, but you also seem to love entertaining an audience. In America, we often divide musicians up into either “Artists” or “Entertainers,” but in Britain it seems the public happily accepts people who do both.

I think you’re right. The thing is, whatever it is you’re making – whether you’re an artist making a picture, or a musician, you’ve got to engage with people. One of the people that I always liked very much was Louis Armstrong. He clearly had a very good sense of humor, but he also had this broad range of music that he would play. The Beatles also had a great sense of humor. They were as funny as the Marx brothers, and I quite liked that. I think nowadays, actually, people are much more open to all different sorts of things than they ever were before, because they discover music in films, or through their computers, and in other ways. They’ve got so many choices that they’re not so tribal. They don’t think, “Oh, I’m just a person that likes jazz, so I couldn’t possibly like Reggae music.” I think people have generally moved-on from that, which I think is a good thing.

From your tenure in Squeeze, to your acclaimed BBC series Later, you’ve always had your hand in a myriad of musical styles. How did you get started, and how did you develop such formidable piano technique?

I was fortunate. When I was small, my parents liked jazz records and classical music. They liked [early jazz pianist] Jelly Roll Morton very much, as well as [American blues singer] Bessie Smith and that sort of music. Also, in the late 1950s and early 1960s, there was a big blues boom in Britain, with people like Chris Barber and later the Rolling Stones and Eric Clapton. I had an uncle who had a group called The Planets. They were known as “London’s Top Rhythm and Blues Group.” My uncle was a bass player, but he also could play Boogie-woogie piano. He used to play it on my grandmother’s piano, and when I heard that, at around the age of six, I thought, “Well, that’s a great sound.” Everything was happening at once, and it made you want to jump up with excitement and pleasure. When you heard that music, all of the chaos of the universe became ordered. I thought it was just the best thing ever. I said to him, “Show me what you’re doing there.” And once he did, I was constantly bashing the piano, trying to work it all out. My father could see I was interested in that stuff, so around the age of nine, he gave me money to go and buy a record. So I went up to Soho in London, past the doorway of beckoning sin – because that’s what Soho was like then, into Dobell’s record shop. This must have been around 1967. They let me spend all day listening to records in a booth, and I was allowed to pick one. I ended-up with an album by Pete Johnson, Albert Ammons and Jimmy Yancey. And that was a great start, and it led-off into different directions.

Photo by Mary McCartney

Photo by Mary McCartney

What other kinds of music got your synapses firing when you were first starting out?

I liked [American singer/guitarist] Sister Rosetta Tharpe. My mother had her 78 rpm records. She was really great. The pop music that was on the radio at that time didn’t really do that much for me. I really liked the Beatles, and I bought every Motown record that came-out. When I was around 10, I remember wearing-out Stevie Wonder’s LP For Once in My Life. I think the big key was only having three records, really. I just listened to them again and again, and I tried to play them – not very well.

Were there other piano players and styles that influenced you as well?

Hearing that Boogie music led me to listening to other piano players like Willie “The Lion” Smith and Fats Waller, but they also lead me to listening to more modern, Rock and roll people like Jerry Lee Lewis and Little Richard. They had that same kind of excitement that got people dancing. By putting all the loose ends together, that brought me to New Orleans people like Fats Domino and Professor Longhair. So it’s a constant process of learning and hearing new things that you pick-up on and enjoy.

At the same time around the docks where we were in London, you had old pubs and some of them had quite good piano players in them. These were older guys around the age of 70 who would play stride and Boogie-woogie piano. So I was hearing and picking-up on that. And then also, my father got me into players like Oscar Peterson and [Austrian concert pianist] Friedrich Gulda. I think it helped that I was listening to these different players and stylings, from Jelly Roll Morton, to Dr. John. I was learning what the piano could do, and about the amazing sounds you could get out of it. And how you could never quite figure it out. I remember getting an Erroll Garner record around the age of 15. I thought, “That’s great, I’ll sit down and do that.” But it never came out sounding quite the same. And what I realized was if it came out sounding the same, it would have been no good. It needed to come out sounding like me.

Did you ever study music or the piano formally?

No. We had a music teacher in my school when I was 14. Nowadays, I’ve noticed that there are whole departments that teach music and it’s great. But back then in the early 1970s, if you said you were thinking about doing music, they just shook their heads and said, “Have you thought about joining the Army?” [Laughs.] It wasn’t a career option, really! But we had an old music teacher, and he was rather good because he had no interest in pop or jazz music at all. He was only interested in classical music. I didn’t really learn how to read the dots, but he showed me things like music theory and chord structures, as well as time signatures and key signatures. I was very pleased that he could do all that. Funnily enough, years later - when I was doing the Night Music television show with David Sanborn, [bassist] Marcus Miller was handing-out these bits of paper. I thought, “I’ve never looked at paper before when I’m doing music. This is exciting. What’s this?” It was a chart. And then I realized that I understood what it meant, all because that old guy aty school had shown me what the chords were called.

So up until that time, nobody had ever passed music out to you?

No. In Squeeze we didn’t. We had our own names for the chords. [Laughs.] We didn’t really have a proper understanding of that!

It shows you that if you’re curious, and you have great influences, the sky is the limit.

Exactly. And it was the love and the obsession I had with trying to figure things out. And that remains with me still. When I hear something really great – it might be you playing with Jimmy Scott at Ronnie Scott’s in London, I think to myself, “Now there’s a great bit. What was that?" The more you play, the more you hopefully feel that you are improving. Maybe as you get older, the real virtuosity doesn’t get any better, but the feel gets better, which is maybe more important.

What kind of show can audiences expect from you at your upcoming run at the Blue Note in NYC?

About 25 years ago, I started doing this thing with my big band. Now of course, that’s five saxophones, four trombones, four trumpets, organ, piano, bass, drums, guitar and backing singers. It’s a big-sized band. The center of that band, and how I used to first do gigs on my own, was me and Gilson [Lavis], who used to be the drummer in Squeeze. He and I have worked together for 30 years. On the very first gigs, I would say, “Here’s my big band,” and just he would come on stage. More recently, we’ve done some smaller shows at jazz festivals where I’d go with just the piano and drums, and we’d also have three singers with us as well. You want to keep things moving all the time, so they’d sing a lot of the songs I’ve written, along with one or two old blues or Gospel songs.

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You don’t use a bass player?

No, and I’ll tell you why. I suppose my main strength is my left hand, so that’s probably enough. It’s also rather fun for me to strip it all back to nothing again. I do around 100 shows a year with the big band, as well as TV shows and an album each year. We’ve done a lot. But it was rather nice to make the change and to get back to exploring the piano in the middle of it. It’s nice to get out from the big band. When I did some of these piano, drum and vocal shows recently in Europe, suddenly I remembered and got my fingers working again a bit more. If you’re fortunate enough to be a piano player, you’re dealing with the king of all instruments because it’s not only a percussive instrument, it’s also like an orchestra. So it was great for me to stretch-out and really enjoy playing the piano again by stripping it down to just me and Gilson on the drums. He is the big band on this occasion.

You’ll have vocalists with you on your New York run as well?

The instrumentation will be me on grand piano, Gilson on the drums, and then we’ll have three vocalists. One is Ruby Turner, who actually had a big hit on the R&B charts in America some years ago with “I’d Rather Go Blind.” She’s had hits and tours with us over here in the UK all the time. Then we also have the great singers Louise Marshall and Mabel Ray. So we have three singers that can cover the gamut of the material that I play live. In an hour show, there’s a lot of material to get in. You want to keep things moving along, and wirth just the piano, drums and vocals, it all comes together. We had so much fun performing in that configuration recently in Germany, we thought it would work in someplace like the Blue Note.

Do you find it ironic that after spending a great amount of your life eschewing pop music, you end-up hosting some of the most revered pop acts in the world on your acclaimed BBC TV show Later… with Jools Holland?

Yeah, but one of the most important things about Later is that we have a mix of musical styles. We want a great popular artist and a great legend, but we also want a great jazz artist, a great world music artist, and so forth. Some weeks, we could have been packed with just very famous, well-known artists. But we’ve avoided doing that, because we feel it’s much more important to us to get a mix of all sorts of things on our show. I think we’ve been very lucky in doing that. So we wouldn’t survive for one minute on commercial television! [Laughs.] We’d be kicked straight off!

So you’ve brought that same sense of eclectic inquisitiveness you have in your musical career to your television one too.

Yes. And also, if I say, “We have U2 and Kanye West on,” which we’ve been very fortunate to have, for instance, that helps shine the spotlight on people that are less known. And also, when they’re in the room, everyone is on an even setting. They’re all just doing their music.

Photo by Mary McCartney

Photo by Mary McCartney

Your mashup of styles on your TV show predates Spotify and music streaming by a quarter century. You were making “playlists” before they even existed!

In a strange way, I suppose so. We’ve been on for a long time, and what’s interesting is that often people will come onto the show early on in their career – Amy Winehouse and Adele were great examples of this. They came on when they first started, and then they came back as they became bigger and bigger stars. It’s great to see that happening. Over twenty-five years, you get to see people blossoming as artists. And that’s great.

For somebody that’s intrigued with your piano playing, what artists or records would you recommend they listen to for further study?

Well I’d be the first person I would suggest [Laughs.] I suppose I’d say Jelly Roll Morton, Dr. John, Fats Waller, Ray Charles, Jerry Lee Lewis, Terry Adams from NRBQ, and Thelonious Monk.

Your piano solo on Squeeze’s "Pulling Mussels (From the Shell)" gave many listeners an early glimpse into your blues and boogie piano prowess. How did you manage to shoehorn it into the confines of a pop tune?

Well, whenever there was a little musical gap, I’d always just sort of dive into it. I’ll tell you one that’s probably more well-known than that, which is “Good Thing” by the Fine Young Cannibals. The solo bit from that was used in an advert that was shown all over the world. So it’s interesting how things get heard. But I think that it’s great that the piano still has a place in music. We pianists have got to stick with it! 

Fore more information, visit http://www.joolsholland.com