Let Jools Holland and his orchestra be your Dr Feelgood at the Skywards Dubai International Jazz Festival in February. Image Credit: Supplied

 We're all told to never judge a book by its cover but I'll be honest with you, I've rarely been wrong yet.

That was until I picked up the phone to composer, pianist, bandleader and TV presenter Jools Holland and expected in-depth discussion on the ins and outs of a good improvisation.

"Tell me what I should go and see when I get to Dubai," says Holland, barely breaking the ice. "I'm a bit of a travel nut and I want to see the real side of the city." The musician will be a headliner at the Skywards Dubai International Jazz Festival 2011 on February 16, supported by Mica Paris and Alison Moyet.

Feeling slightly off balance — mainly because my first flurry of questions concerned music, musicians and memories about music — I hastily sent my brain in another direction and searched for a bright idea.

Saved by Holland's enthusiasm, he beats me to the punch. "I was in Abu Dhabi last year and I asked a taxi driver to take me to the older shops. I have since picked up, it's called a souk, but I didn't know that at the time. I ended up in a kind of 1970s Croydon shopping precinct," he laughs. "It wasn't exactly what I meant but I was too polite to say anything."

An intrepid explorer he may be, but from playing pubs in the East End docks as a teenage greaser to leading his rhythm and blues orchestra and selling millions of records, it is his passion for music which catapulted Holland to where he is today.

Despite being just 15 when he was introduced to Glenn Tilbrook and Chris Difford and subsequently formed the band Squeeze, Holland is probably best known for his UK Friday night chat and jam show, Later... with Jools Holland.

After presenting two series of Juke Box Jury in 1989 and then 26 shows of The Happening in 1990, Jools was asked in 1992 to host the new music programme for BBC2, which has since welcomed some of the biggest names in music to his famous piano.

"Amy Winehouse will always be a guest who sticks in mind," he says when absolutely pushed on a memorable guest on his show.

"I wouldn't like to pinpoint anyone in particular because that may seem like the others weren't as interesting, which is silly. The show is about interesting people otherwise they shouldn't be there," he says with a giggle which could be mistaken for discomfort.

‘Incredible performer'

"But I do remember Amy surprised me because of how utterly calm she was. She looked at me backstage and idled into conversation that her dad may come down later. ‘Oh great,' I remember I replied. Then on stage she just transformed into this incredible performer. She blew me away and seemed so far from the girl in the dressing room before."

Given a chance to comment on Winehouse's controversial character, Holland thinks for a minute before telling it how it is.

"Musicians have a strength within," he says, determined not to be specific about Winehouse's well-documented drug problem. "When you're a true musician you don't care what people think and that's why she gets caught up in the media scrum. Because genuinely nothing matters to her but the music and when you see it on stage you understand what I mean. Sure, sometimes she gets it wrong but she's an utterly fascinating artist and always will be."

Mr Clapton and Sir Tom are close friends (well — that's how he refers to Eric Clapton and Tom Jones), while B.B. King, Chuck Berry, Gladys Knight and Burt Bacharach are names he drops casually into conversation.

"I've done lots of shows with these guys and they are amazing human beings," he says. "I've written songs with them and performed alongside them, and when you're fortunate enough to play music with these guys you realise very quickly the egos disappear and what's left is just the common love to share for music."

However, there was one woman who got Holland all afluster.

"As Gladys Knight started to sing If I Was Your Woman, I felt like I was flying," he recalls, followed by a heavy sigh and pause. "It took everything I had in me to concentrate enough to keep playing the piano beside her. I waited for 13 years to play with her and it was worth the wait."

At the age of eight, he could play the piano fluently by ear, which naturally meant Ray Charles was always going to be a man he looked up to. "He was an amazing human being. He touched my life when I asked him what he'd like written on his gravestone. This is what he says: ‘You can like Ray Charles or not. You can like his music or not. You can like what he does on stage or not. But one thing remains — when you hear Ray Charles' music, you know he's telling the truth.' I wrote a song inspired by this for Ray which he agreed to record. Unfortunately he got very sick not long after and didn't manage it before he died. A truly great man."


Songs such as Up The Junction and Cool For Cats made Squeeze's success meteoric and their popularity rapidly extended to the US, where their tour included performances at Madison Square Garden.

In 1987, Holland formed The Jools Holland Big Band, which has gradually metamorphosed into the current 22-piece Jools Holland and His Rhythm & Blues Orchestra, which consists of a pianist, organist, drummer, three female vocalists, guitar, bass guitar, two tenor saxophones, two alto saxophones, a baritone saxophone, three trumpets, and four trombones.

"We are bringing just 13 people to Dubai because that's all we can fit on stage," he says with a booming laugh. "It is still an incredible sound and we are very excited about performing in the UAE."

Jools and the Rhythm & Blues Orchestra play to audiences in excess of 500,000 each year but that's not to say everyone knows his face.

"I was in a hotel in America not so long ago. It was full of pensioners and they had no idea who I was. But I started playing some rhythm and blues and music hall kind of stuff on a piano in the lobby and before we knew it we had a little session on our hands. That really is the wonder of music. There are no boundaries. It's an international language."

Holland was awarded an OBE in 2003 for his services to the British music industry. "I have the best job in the world and consider myself very lucky. I get to make music with some of the most talented musicians on the planet. The best thing is performing on stage with a huge band, the sound is breathtaking and even now, still catches me off guard. We're a big family." He pauses. "The downside is being shown to a really small dressing room."

 tabloid! reveals the jazzy line-up

Almost a decade ago, he had the vision and musical knowledge to launch one of the UAE's most successful annual music festivals.

Ahead of the ninth instalment of the Skywards Dubai International Jazz Festival, Anthony Younes, the founder of the festival and CEO of Chillout Productions, gives you the lowdown on the headline acts at the event taking place from February 16-18, 2011, which includes everyone from jazz legend Jools Holland, the raspy-voiced R&B star Macy Gray to American chart-toppers Lifehouse and Grammy-winning rock band Train.

"The line-up of the Skywards Dubai International Jazz Festival 2011 will be with no doubt a great attraction for what it will feature in terms of music genres and artists' profiles, which we made sure satisfies all tastes and likes," Younes told tabloid!.

"Our regular guests and new fans will have the chance to attend our shows at wallet-friendly prices, as we've made sure to offer affordable tickets and several categories in order to accommodate a larger crowd."

Ticket prices start at Dh275 for standing room.

"Although the overall line-up includes a variety of music genres, we always make sure to maintain the original essence of the festival, which is jazz. Jazz lovers will enjoy 14 shows across seven nights leading up to the main concerts featuring another set of award-winning artists."


The Acts

February 16

Jools Holland: "A great contributor to the music world, the keyboard king carries a rich repertoire of achievements and a unique showbiz career as an artist, as well as a popular presenter."

 Alison Moyet: "She stands out with an original presence in the recording industry with her rich, emotive vocal style. Personally, I see her as a living legend, promising a lot more for the music industry and the fans of her style."

Mica Paris: "Simply a diva! Mica's individualistic delivery and musical approach as well as her wonderful voice guaranteed her the well-deserved title of the Queen of Soul."

February 17

 Macy Gray: "I can never describe her fairly in few words. She is unique, with an unbeatable talent. She has an unusual but addictive vocal style to offer, along with a charismatic presence on stage.

Lifehouse: "This band offers an innovative and appealing style of modern pop rock with a huge record of successful tours worldwide. This shows the great potential of this young group, proving a firm and growing musical strength since its initiation."

Mindi Abair and Peter White: "An exciting, entertaining duo, offering the best of smooth yet pop-inspired jazz. The crowd will enjoy the musical harmony of these two professional artists."

February 18

Train: "Extremely catchy and distinctive pop-rock band. Effortless but arresting vocals of Pat Monahan, the band's unique member will definitely make the songs stand out from the crowd."

Jessy J: "An amazingly talented jazz saxophonist with strong entertaining skills. Her music as well as her active presence on stage reflects her passion for jazz."

Joshua Radin: "A remarkable alternative artist and a fast-rising star with strong musical power and attractive style that any listener can relate to, offering new genre of quality yet approachable music."

 Don't Miss it

The Skywards Dubai International Jazz Festival's three main concerts will take place on February 16, 17 and 18. More acts will be added to the line-up in the coming weeks. For tickets, visit dubaijazzfest.com