Ahead of his annual New Year's Hootenanny, ivory tinkling bandleader and TV presenter Jools Holland and his Rhythm & Blues Orchestra return with a star studded cast of guests on The Golden Age Of Song, their latest album release and another sterling effort. Sounding takes from TV sessions (Hootenanny) alongside studio recordings and jazz standards alongside soul classics, performed with a variety of musical acts from various genres; it's a well-balanced affair.
Powerfully voiced Paloma Faith features on the opening track, Etta James' 'Something's Got A Hold On Me', during the first verse of which Faith sings each line a cappella and is then replied to with a full band chord. It's a dramatic and showy opening, perfectly exemplary of both hers and the R&B orchestra's performing personas, which then kicks into a trademark bluesy big band sound with horns and rhythm section et al. Big Band swing complete with blasting trumpets, Hammond organ and of course Holland's boogie woogie piano tones, the loud, confident band opening of 'Ac-cent-tchu-ate' completely contrasts soloist Rumer's beautiful, Karen Carpenter-esque vocal, but the band drop right back to mellow mode when the vocals enter. The band shine during instrumental sections but remain sensitively in the background during much of Rumer's singing, gradually building throughout. 'Lovin' Machine', from the 2009 Hootenanny, is a toe tapping blues track with a busy walking bass line doubled by the piano. Full of fun horn parts comprising an altogether louder vibe than the preceding track, Jools and his Rhythm & Blues Orchestra are the perfect accompaniment to Nutini following his 2009 album Sunny Side Up. This is once again contrasted with 'Bei Mir Bist Du Schön', which starts as a more sultry and smooth number before driving into a funky reggae groove, gradually becoming more and more soulful towards soloist Joss Stone's style.
Tracklisting the likes of an eastern European folk tune ('Bei Mir Bist Du Schon'), alongside pop ballads ('Get Here') and jazz standards ('I Got It Bad (And That Ain't Good)'), the album's variety is, like its predecessors, its biggest strength. Also superb is the willingness for featured artists to step out of their comfort zones; Jessie J showcases the range and power of her superb singing voice on 'Get Here', though we're perhaps more used to her disguising it in a half sung, half rapped kind of style, and Paul Weller steps away from his familiar indie vibe during his duet with the late Amy Winehouse, again from the 2009 Hootenanny, despite the full Rhythm & Blues Orchestra arrangement being familiar ground for Winehouse. The latter, 'Don't Go To Strangers', sounds Winehouse's powerful vocal contrasting Weller's surprisingly smooth and gentle vocal. Later, another jazz standard, 'My Baby Just Cares For Me' also sounds Florence Welch stepping out of her comfort zone and bringing her distinctive flavour to one of Nina Simone's signature tunes. A dangerous inclusion, perhaps, as it's probably a piece that's been recorded to death, but it's actually refreshing to hear Welch's voice amongst a blend so different to her own and to hear her tame her tendency to wail.
This compilation's downfalls are few and far between; perhaps Mick Hucknall's version of the Ellington standard 'I Got It Bad (And That Ain't Good)' is the first time on the album that a track drags sluggishly. Any slight wavers are definitely thwarted by some real treats which occur later on in the tracklisting; Caro Emerald's version of 'Mad About The Boy', for example, which opens with a trombone solo and then lilts into a melting string-backed blend sounding akin to a bond theme, oozing classisness and sensitivity both in terms of its arrangement and in Emerald's vocals which flow effortlessly over the orchestra. And later still on 'Reet Petite' which features Cee Lo Green who has the perfect voice for such a track; powerful, comfortable and at home amongst an R&B/soul blend with full Rhythm & Blues Orchestra backings.
Another solid offering that perfectly captures the fun and collective nature of Jools' musical projects as showcased on his Later... and Hootenanny programmes, and appealing to several audiences to boot.