Quite the impressive lineup: Sting, Eric Clapton, Van Morrison, Joe Strummer, Mark Knopfler, Dr. John, Eric Clapton, Paul Weller, David Gilmour and nearly a dozen more A-listers, not to mention scores of studio hounds, join the former Squeeze keyboardist and current Brit-TV music-show host on 22 new and slightly used swing, jump and crawl numbers. And while the entirety of the disc's worth the extra pound note or two--it's available from Amazon's UK Web site, but not in the States for a few more months--there's the added bonus of Small World Big Band containing a contribution from George Harrison, recorded not long after surgery for the cancer that would take his life a couple of weeks ago. The CD jacket pic of Harrison hints at the sad inevitable: His head shorn, his frame thin, he looks like a shadow of a shadow of the man whose face has filled TV tributes in recent days. And his voice, heard singing about how you can't brighten up the dim man unless he really wants a little truth, is nearly unrecognizable; it's as slight as he looks in the picture, a once-vital instrument worn down by cigarettes and illness. But that doesn't diminish the warmth it possesses or the joy to be had from hearing Harrison, nearing his end, swinging in the company of Holland and the big band; those might as well be Gabriel's horns and a choir of angels cooing in the background, as Harrison croons about that friend of his "in so much misery" who came to him looking for "some wisdom" (gimme some truth, indeed). Doubtful it's the last thing to be heard from Harrison, who's said to have recorded some 25 tracks before his death, but it's nice to find his first track in 10 years among so many grins and not down-turned faces.
Indeed, the project plays like one long and giddy episode of Later With Jools Holland, running on BBC America in the States; Holland plays ringleader, introducing and jamming with an amalgam of all-stars and small-stars. The entirety doesn't aspire to be more than a rave-up good time--nothing too serious, nothing too staid, just Holland wrangling pals and playmates (including ex-Squeezers Chris Difford and Paul Carrack on two tracks) to run down Willie Dixon, T-Bone Walker, Screamin' Jay Hawkins and, oh, Beatles songs among some new originals rendered brash and brassy. Some are fluffy toss-offs (Knopfler's "Mademoiselle Will Decide" conjures thoughts of an after-hours piano bar; Cale's "I Wanna Be Around" finds the VU dude playing Sinatra...Jr.), others are meaty goofs (Clapton does Ray Charles' "What Would I Do Without You" proud; Morrison saunters down Bourbon Street with a drink in one hand and "Back O' Town Blues" in the other), while the rest make for fun, frivolous anthems to be sung and forgotten as the night's party gives way to the morning's hangover.
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Nice to hear Sting lighten up a bit after a year spent hawking Jags and drags; his cover of Dixon's "Seventh Son" recalls the days back when he sang "Tutti Frutti" on the Party Party soundtrack--back when his sense of humor felt genuine, not a forced smile. Same goes for Paul Weller's "Will It Go Round in Circles," an old Billy Preston-Bruce Fisher cut; it recalls the best of the Style Council, back when the Jam man had soul that wasn't on loan from Stevie Winwood (who shows up here, as well, and damned if you can tell the two apart anymore). Oddly, the best tracks are the downers: Brit diva Sam Brown's "Valentine Moon" and Ruby Turner's Mann-Weil redo "Nobody But You," both of which sound like the Brill Building falling apart, brick by brilliant brick.