Swing Fever with Rod Stewart and Jools Holland

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Swing Fever by Rod Stewart with Jools Holland

How should you rate the importance of any new album release (to the extent any album has any importance at all in this benighted era)? Will it lead to riots in the streets, protests at the barricades, or a new musical trend that sweeps the world? Will it inspire a popular new haircut or a new clothing fashion? Will it break all-time records in sales?

Swing Fever by Rod Stewart with Jools Holland and his big band, it’s safe to say, will do none of those things, and it won’t do plenty of others besides. But if you happen to be open to it, it just might be the most exhilarating thing that gets between your ears in 2024.

Rod Stewart needs no introduction, and in any case I’m not the man to give him one, as I’ve never been a special fan (though nothing against him, you understand). What you need to know is—based on this album and associated performances—he appears to be the most energetic 79 year-old this side of Moses. If you don’t believe me (or even if you do), you might watch the clip below of the ensemble’s take on “Pennies from Heaven.”

Jools Holland came to relative fame as the keyboardist with the British pop group Squeeze (more decades ago than even I would care to count) but in more recent epochs he’s been a mainstay on British television, hosting the essential live music show in that part of the world, providing both up-and-comers and old fogies with a place to get their music in front of the public. In many cases he accompanies them with his own big band, elevating their game considerably. It’s a band he also tours and makes records with, and that’s no small thing to pull off in this day and age.

Rod’s made five “Great American Songbook” albums in the past 20 years, and I’ve heard quite a bit of those tracks on my local Easy Listening station, and, while they’ve never been offensive, they have also never much grabbed me. I tend to agree with a view I recall Bob Dylan expressing, to the effect that rock singers are better off not getting in front of enormous string-filled orchestras to do those kinds of songs, but ought instead to do it their own way. Of-course it makes sense that he would say that, given that he took on that kind of material with his own small guitar-based combo and created a unique new treasure out of it.

However, even Bob (in his sacred wisdom) added some horns when he took a stab at a few up-tempo tracks on his final “American Songbook” opus, Triplicate. When you want to swing, it’s good to have something extra.

The proof, in the end, is in the performance, and there is zero audible incongruity in Rod Stewart’s singing in front of Jools Holland’s big band. But then why would there be? Swing is an indispensable antecedent to rock & roll, and indeed a lot of these tunes are much closer to rock & roll than the stuff you’d be liable to hear in a big stadium with monumental guitar chords, synthesizers and a huge light show.

Rod and Jools clearly know all that, and they further illustrate the connectivity between all these musical threads by including songs that rarely wear the swing label, like “Frankie And Johnny” and “Tennessee Waltz,” that latter taken at an exuberant clip.

Exuberance is the order of the day here, with a healthy portion of pure joy, and on first hearing the early teaser “Pennies from Heaven” I was reminded of that King of Exuberance from days gone by, Louis Prima. Rod’s voice with this material isn’t a million miles from his, after all, and not many other people could pull off such a blasting take on such a sweet song. With the album’s release, it became clear that Louis Prima’s spirit had been a primary presence in the studio, with the second track being Prima’s own song, “Oh Marie.”

Stewart and Holland fittingly don’t mess with “Oh Marie” at all, except to pour even more gas on the fire bequeathed by Louis. And if a curmudgeon were to criticize this album, they’d probably say the arrangements are “too busy.” But it’s the very lust and abandon of the playing that transmits the ecstasy here, and so I believe it is well placed.

* * *

Coming across one of the interviews Rod and Jools were doing on the back of this release, I witnessed one talk show presenter actually ask them if the songs were cover versions or originals. To their credit they gave a straight answer instead of falling over in laughter. But it hit me that some people just haven’t heard this music at all. If you’re my age or younger (born in the Summer of Love) you might not have much encountered this stuff unless your parents had good taste and a record collection to match, and even then you would likely have rated it uncool. Much younger than that, and most people would have had even less exposure to it. I got interested in music from this era only in adulthood, just through following one connection or another, in a process otherwise known as the grace of God. It was overwhelming and has ever since been a source of immeasurable pleasure. I can’t imagine still being confined to the post-50’s pop and rock I grew up with (albeit that I continue to love that too).

And ever since then, it’s been a thing of joy to hear this music continue to be revived and rediscovered. It’s a reassurance that maybe the good stuff really does ultimately rise to the top. It kind of redeems the whole human race. It actually puts a smile on my face.

Why, it’s almost like being in love.

Swing Fever by Rod Stewart with Jools Holland is released on the Warner Records label