Album Review: Jools Holland & his Rhythm & Blues Orchestra – Sirens of Song4 min read
Later… is one of the UK’s most iconic and longest-running TV shows focused solely on music. 22 years into its run and after spawning 14 compilation albums, the institution – and for that matter, its esteemed host Jools Holland – has become something of a household name in the UK and beyond. Along with his world renowned Rhythm and Blues Orchestra, Jools is responsible for dozens of contemporary music’s impeccably arranged big-band records and this month reinforces his position as one of England’s best collaborators with his latest, Sirens of Song. Assembling a cast of the finest female vocal talent on the planet, Sirens of Song pairs classic material from artists as diverse as Ray Charles, The Specials, The Clash and Cole Porter with all manner of singers from former Spice Girl Mel C, Joss Stone, Laura Mvula to the late, great Eartha Kitt and Amy Winehouse.
Jamaican R&B Queen Ruby Turner kicks off proceedings with the energetic blues shuffle of Ray Charles’ Jumping in the Morning which harnesses Turner’s sultry howl and pits it wonderfully against Jools’ ever-impressive stride piano and an intimidating wall of piercing brass. The unparalleled soulfulness of Joss Stone brings a raw sensuality to Letting Me Down – one of the record’s handful of co-written original compositions – and its lazily swung waltz is truly a treat.
British R&B starlet Emeli Sandé’s take on the standard Love Me or Leave Me has a wonderful playfulness about it with Sandé’s neo-soul phrasing breathing new life into the tune before the cathartic balladry of The Vow showcases Holland’s frequent collaborator Louise Clare Marshall’s romantic side beautifully. Then we come to a live 2006 recording of The Specials’ Monkey Man featuring the one and only Amy Winehouse. It still seems unfair that with the explosion of soul music across the globe in recent years, one of the latest revival’s pioneers was so tragically cut down in her prime, but the influence of her particular brand of modern R&B is all too apparent in almost every guest on Sirens of Song and it’s clear that her legacy will continue to hold relevance in the music industry for decades to come.
The included version of The Clash’s Should I Stay or Should I Go? sounds utterly ridiculous in theory: Australia’s Kylie Minogue singing arguably the song that birthed the entire genre of “pop-punk” in an authentic New Orleans style with a hand-clapping gospel breakdown – but the results of this culture-sampling experiment are jaw-dropping and one of the album’s highlights. Next, Holland’s daughter Mabel Ray might not have the sass and charisma of some of the other performers here, but her vocal on Sweet Bitter Love perfectly straddles the divide between jazz technicalities and a pure, emotive feel.
One of England’s best kept secrets Laura Mvula (who certainly deserves recognition on a global scale) brings her own African influences to See Line Woman and it feels like one of the purest “collaborations” on Sirens of Song with its jaunty momentum falling somewhere between a car chase in a movie from the ‘60s and a traditional tribal dance circle. Rumer flexes her Juke-Joint blues muscles with a hushed, sensual take on blues legend Percy Mayfield’s Lost Mind before Imelda May’s Top to Bottom Boogie takes on a real Memphis vibe with its jump-blues immediacy and soul to spare.
On the Cole Porter standard Night & Day, KT Tunstall eschews the loop-pedal pop for which she is probably best known in favour of channeling jazz legend Billie Holiday in a way that’s as surprisingly foreign to fans of hers as it is perfectly executed and the tune proves to be another of the album’s high points. Then, with possibly the most underrated post-Spice Girls career of the bunch, Melanie “Sporty” Chisholm takes on Stevie Wonder’s nostalgia-fueled classic I Wish with the same attitude she brought to one of the world’s biggest ever acts and Jools’ piano talents are given even more room to breathe.
Ruby Turner returns with the organ-bolstered Chicago blues of the original co-write I Still Went Wrong before the album wraps up in a similar stylistic vein with Eartha “Catwoman” Kitt’s immortal and once-in-a-lifetime character and vocal tone truly soaring on closer, the Fats Waller standard Ain’t Misbehavin’. Eartha’s legacy as one of the true greats of jazz is the perfect way to end such a comprehensive showcase of incredible female talent and Sirens of Song shows time and time again what a crucially important musical figure – if largely unknown outside the UK –Jools Holland truly is.