Jools Holland and his Rhythm and Blues Orchestra put on a show of such matchlessness in today’s world.

I enter the theatre and look for my seat in the near dark; below the stage watches me like a giant blue omni-seeing eye. The crowd is a mix: every generation is chattering excitedly, from grandparents, to mum and dads to their kids. In some ways, it mirrors what is to come. Jools’ world famous big band could be one of jazz’s longest running stage families: a collection of friends and relations, like-minded, jazz-souled artists who at some point crossed paths and decided that they liked the result. Jools’ daughter, singer Mabel Ray also performs as part of the band.

Just as I find my seat a guitarist walks on stage, casually, with a polished silver metal guitar that shines a spot into the crowd as it reflects a light. Mark Flannagan, The Rhythm and Blues Orchestra’s resident guitarist warms up the crowd with blues and bluegrass. Country riffs over cheerful songs about heartbreak; the joy of despair, isn’t that the definition of The Blues? Mark shares with us a few anecdotes about his first gigs in the Manchester Apollo, and others around the world, and it makes me realise again that these musicians, with birthday’s ranging from the 1930s to the late 80s, have been the first hand witnesses of evolving music. Collectively, they have seen and been part of jazz, soul, blues and be-bop from the word go.

The Boogie Woogie party kicks off after a quick introduction from one of the band, and Jools himself comes skipping onto stage. The atmosphere leaps up several notches to join Jools in an appreciation of BB King: the scene in the room, which had been full of good feeling anyway, is now set to a joyful, cheeky rhythm we had all been anticipating. Everyone is immediately clapping the rhythm and every time one of those glorious saxophones or trumpets toots the top line there’s a collective shiver of appreciation.

A full brass section is something really to be admired and revelled in. This one, with some members having played together for 20 years or even longer, know each other’s movements and sounds just as well as their own. It’s evident from watching and listening to their seamless playing that their gigs aren’t treated as just shows, but celebrations of the many colourful and diverse lives they have led and the events which have led them to perform together.

Good music must pull an emotional response from the listener. Great music must be played with all the love, despair, fear and laughter that it was inspired by and truly fantastic music must translate that to an audience which knows nothing about the story behind it and still allow them to feel as if they’ve experienced it all. The Rhythm and Blues Orchestra, each person of which collected and assembled with such care by Jools as if he were compiling a great musical photo album of his life, tells every tale with such enthusiasm and gusto that every audience member is heaved all the way into the rainbow of their sound, singing.

Jools introduces the complete band with all the energy and infectious good humour that makes our at home New Year’s Eve’s such a hoot, telling stories along the way. He motions at sections in the crowd: “The people up there in the circle, you can enjoy yourself in relative safety; the people to this side of the stalls here, you’re pretty safe too; but you over here, you better watch it because you’re right in front of this heavy artillery—this brass section is not to be trifled with!” right before striking up a swinging jive.

Most of us learnt songs like “When the Saints Go Marching In” at school and thought that once we left primary music behind, we would never have to go through the pain of having to perform out of tune renditions to the rest of the class—but somehow we’re all singing it now, with Jool’s rhythm section bringing it to life with such pizzazz, it’s impossible not boogie a little in our seats. Our 6-year-old selves would be astounded.

This band is comprised of a melting pot of musicians from all over, featuring celebrated Saxophonist Michael Bami Rose, Lisa Grahame, Phil Veacock, Derek Nash and Baritone Sax Nick Lunt. Together these make a beautifully full sounding sax army.

But this is not the half of it: Mabel Ray and Louise Marshall sing brilliant swing and gospel styled solos before adopting backing vocals for KT Tunstall—the special guest with Jool’s tour this year. After starting her regrettably short set with her biggest hit ‘Suddenly I See’, she thanks Jools and the band for the “wonderful circle of life effect” as “without Jool’s no one here would know me.” But we like to think we would, as her performance was an impeccable exhibition of her unique gravelly voice, over catchy guitar rhythms and the confidence to slide behind the drum set next to legendary Gilson Lavis to drum out the last bars alongside the tireless musician.

We learn after an outstanding drum solo by Lavis, that tonight- Sunday 20th Dec- is the night that, in 1976, Jools and Lavis first met and Jools decided that the man who drums like his life depends on it should be part of the band. It was also apparently decided that Lavis should come on tour with them, not least because he was only one at the time with a driver’s license and a car: truly an invaluable investment for this wonderful orchestra.

But what Jools Holland show would be complete without incomparable Ruby Turner; the Jamaican singer, songwriter and actress who has performed and toured with Jools for over ten years. Her big voice is matched by her big personality and huge stage presence: Jools happily moves over as she leads the band in hits from her album ‘All that I am,’ and her Jools Holland collaborations ‘The Informer’ and ‘Jools and Ruby.’ As it’s nearly Christmas, the room quietened for just a few bars to listen to her beautiful ‘Silent Night’ before Jools invited the whole theatre again for “a little sing-song” of ‘Goodnight Irene’ and ‘Enjoy Yourself.’

While enjoying real music inspired by and in tribute of the great blues and jazz artists of 20th century, it was a happy and sad moment all at once to learn at the end that tonight’s show came especially in tribute to the late Rico Rodriguez, who had been part of the band since the 1990s and had enjoyed bringing his music to audiences the world over until just this year. He was even awarded an MBE for services to music in 2007.

For the entire show, it has been frustrating not to get out of my seat and have a little dance, and I am so grateful that for the last few songs people forget their seats, some maybe in memory of Rico, some perhaps just so involved in the moment. The infectious, joyful spirit of Jools Holland and the magnificent Rhythm and Blues Orchestra is impossible to contain in the room, and it’s immensely satisfying to see people of all ages dancing in the isles, enveloped in the best sounds of a good 7 decades.

Reviewer: Natalie Romero

Reviewed: 20th December 2015