With its cover modelled on an A to Z street guide (maps) book, this is Jools Holland‘s A-Z Geographers’ Guide to the Piano album, from 1992.
Although Jools Holland was known as the keyboard player in the band Squeeze during the late 1970s, he didn’t really arrive on my radar until November 1982 when he began co-presenting a brand new music show on a brand new UK TV channel. Channel 4’s The Tube was a fully live, Friday evening broadcast with a 90 minute format and what was then a very modern, brazenly chaotic, and slightly irreverent style. It had a big impact on the younger British audience, and gave Holland, along with his co-presenter Paula Yates, a high profile with the youth of the day.
Perhaps unusually for someone who’d been chosen to present such an obviously youth-targeted programme, Jools Holland’s influences were orientated less towards rock music, and more towards jazz-based styles. In particular, traditional boogie-woogie and New Orleans blues piano, whose complexities and nuances he’d mastered to a pretty spectacular level. In the ‘one finger’ era of early 1980s synth pop, there was a dire dearth of keyboard players who could be considered to have contemporary cred, but who could play an acoustic piano with a dazzling technique and a vitality that left you open-mouthed. It was the very fact that technique had died out as a component in contemporary keyboard playing that drew so much attention to Jools Holland’s ability. He was part of the then current ‘alternative culture’ (unlike the Keith Emersons and Rick Wakemans), so he had the attention of teenagers. And they (or we – I was one of them) weren’t really seeing that sort of technical ability in any other ‘teen market’ keyboardists at that time.
The jazz-blues thing was never going to be a primary element in The Tube, but very occasionally, Holland would play solo piano on the show, and it was during those moments that I not only became a major fan, but I also saw the piano in a new light and adopted it as my own first instrument. In the ensuing years, I think I must have learned every single piano solo and groove Jools Holland ever played. Even today, it’s virtually impossible for me to get that influence out of my keyboard playing.
To this day, Jools Holland has remained as a presenter of live TV music shows (although to a fair extent the audiences have aged with him), and his annual new year Hootenanny shows are now deeply entrenched in BBC culture. The broadcast is well known for providing some of the most watchable performances of the year from some of the truly important acts of the day, and indeed, in some cases, of all time.
The A-Z Geographers’ Guide is an album of piano-driven instrumentals, showcasing some very typical ‘Hollandisms’. It’s not the best album he’s ever made, but it probably has my favourite sleeve/cover, and there are some points of significant interest. For me, the opening track Brick Lane is the highlight. Primarily it’s a blues/soul-style instrumental, but it has the addition of voice snippets, from real people who were working in and living around London’s Brick Lane. Just ordinary people who did ordinary things, saying who they were and giving the names of the shops they worked in or whatever. It works really well as a concept anyway, but hearing it twenty years after the recording was made, there’s an extra dynamic. You wonder what the people are doing now, whether they’re still there. It’s almost like a time capsule. All of the tracks are named after London locations, although Brick Lane is the only one which couldn’t have been called anything else. The rest of the numbers could really have been given any title.
I was just about to mention the Hammond organ as another highlight, with its grungey sound – particularly forthright on Newgates Knocker. But I don’t think it is a real Hammond. Holland used an old analogue Korg CX3 organ through a Leslie rotary speaker on a lot of recordings through the years, as he stated in an early ’90s interview. I’m guessing, then, that this is Korg’s ‘fake Hammond’ in action, but it sounds brilliant whatever it is.
Not everyone will go for an album like this, and I suspect it will be too stylised and devoid of ‘singalong value’ for some. But it’s full of great musicianship, and for Jools Holland purists, it’s pretty much unmissable.