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‘Swing Fever’ Review: Rod Stewart And Jools Holland Heat Up The Jazz Classics
Photo: Jonas Mohr
In Depth

‘Swing Fever’ Review: Rod Stewart And Jools Holland Heat Up The Jazz Classics

Both respectful and inventive, ‘Swing Fever’ finds Rod Stewart and Jools Holland adding a new chapter to the Great American Songbook.

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Sir Rod Stewart is no stranger to the Great American Songbook. Beginning with 2002’s It Had To Be You, he has released five volumes of Songbook recordings, each one developing his mastery of the timeless classics that have been the bedrock of Broadway show tunes and of the careers of the best jazz singers of all time. But, two decades on from his initial foray into this world, and with designs on paying tribute to the big-band era of the early 20th century, the rock icon and former Faces frontman realised he needed to go in a different direction if his 33rd solo album, Swing Fever, was going to fire his imagination.

Listen to ‘Swing Fever’here.

“What we try and do is get to the essence of it”

“I’d already started making a swing album, but it didn’t turn out how I wanted it,” Stewart has said of the early Swing Fever sessions. “It was more Frank Sinatra than it was Louis Prima, let’s say.”

Indeed, the energy of the great New Orleans trumpeter, known for his percussive arrangements of tunes that have long since earned their place among the best jazz songs, makes itself felt from the off, courtesy of Swing Fever’s opening song, Lullaby Of Broadway. Conjuring an open-all-hours joint on New York City’s 52nd Street, the song – complete with playful tap-dance solo – sets out Swing Fever’s stall: big-band jazz served piping hot, straight from the engine room of Jool Holland’s studio in Greenwich, South-East London.

As Stewart has told it, pianist and bandleader Holland was “the guy I should go to” in order to ensure that Swing Fever turned out the way he wanted. Bonding over their shared love of both the R&B and jazz classics of the pre-rock’n’roll era and of model railways, the pair instantly knew they were on the right track when they began swapping favourite songs, educating each other as they prepared to enter the studio.

Holland has admitted that Almost Like Being In Love, issued as the album’s first single, was entirely new to him when Stewart brought it to the table. But in learning the song, the bandleader also discovered how best to approach arranging all the Swing Fever material. “What we try and do is get to the essence of it,” he explained ahead of the album’s release. “If there are lots of complicated chords, we get rid of those and just play the simple ones.”

“Music is an expression of a lot of different things, and joy is an important part of what it does”

By paring each track back to its basic components, Holland has made space for his 18-piece Rhythm & Blues Orchestra to fill the room – and with a clarity that captures every instrument in detail, from the Hammond organ fills on Lullaby Of Broadway and Love Is The Sweetest Thing to the call-and-response horns on Oh Marie and Good Rockin’ Tonight, and the cooing backing singers that, like a modern-day Andrews Sisters, wrap themselves around Stewert’s vocals throughout. “The orchestra rehearsed [the songs] a couple of times when I wasn’t there,” Stewart has said of the recording sessions, “then they went in and did three day, which is quite remarkable.” Cramming the sprawling ensemble into the small studio only enhanced the results. “It just unites everybody,” the singer says.

For his part, Stewart is clearly having fun, egging the band on during the instrumental breaks, as if performing before a live audience. “I’ve got to give credit to Jools’ orchestra,” he has said, singling out the rhythm section of bassist Dave Swift and drummer Gilson Lavis, plus Jools and his brother, Chris, on piano and Hammond organ, respectively, for providing the “steaming” backing the remainder of the band build upon.

“Whenever I put it on where people are, they feel this thing, they want to move”

On top of it all, of course, is Stewert himself, the Da Ya Think I’m Sexy? hitmaker turning up the heat on a ballad such as Them There Eyes without losing any of the sensuality at the song’s core, and cruising through Sentimental Journey with all the class of a vintage steam train, proving that, though there’s no doubting the respect both singer and band have for the source material, no one was interested in making Swing Fever an exercise in nostalgia.

Certainly, Stewart, Holland and their cohorts have ensured Swing Fever’s 13 songs sound as vital as they did when they were first written. “Music is an expression of a lot of different things, and joy is an important part of what it does,” Holland has said. “The effect that this music has on me, and whenever I put it on where people are, they feel this thing, they want to move.”

As infectious as its title suggests, Swing Fever could well be setting in motion a whole new phase of Stewart’s storied career.

Buy signed copies of ‘Swing Fever’.

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