By Cait Brennan
From the very beginning of his professional career, Joe Jackson has been one of the most driven, creative, and eclectic artists in popular music. His debut album, Look Sharp, was one of the New Wave’s first smash hits, and over his first three albums Jackson and his band ruled the airwaves with catchy, intelligent pop with strong punk, reggae and pub-rock influences.
But Jackson soon demonstrated a depth and musical ambition that few of his contemporaries could match. On 1981′s Joe Jackson’s Jumpin’ Jive, Jackson declared his independence from the New Wave entirely, covering—and channeling—swing and jump blues aces like Louis Jordan and Cab Calloway with an inspired, blazing hot set of songs that predated the swing revival by a generation. Faithful yet irreverent, Jumpin’ Jive is Jackson at his finest, and was a harbinger of great things to come.
Now, Jackson pays faithful-but-irreverent homage to another of his musical heroes. On The Duke, Jackson applies that same freewheeling, genre-busting style to 15 Duke Ellington compositions. Combining electronic and acoustic instrumentation, sophisticated and sometimes radical reinvention, Jackson’s class-of-’77 ebullience, and an all-star lineup of guests, The Duke is an adventurous tribute worthy of its namesake.
Jackson’s distinctive vocals highlight several enjoyable, unconventional arrangements of Ellington standards (“Mood Indigo” in particular is completely transformed by the Jackson arrangement). “Ellington didn’t consider his own arrangements to be sacred,” Jackson said in a press release. “He constantly reworked them, sometimes quite radically. So I think my approach is in the spirit of the man himself.”
On other songs, he leaves the vocals to special guests. In Jackson’s hands, “It Don’t Mean A Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing”) becomes a raucous, hilarious electronic-tinged duet with punk icon (and part-time pitchman) Iggy Pop; the great Sharon Jones renders outstanding interpretations of “I Ain’t Got Nothin’ But The Blues” and “Do Nothing Till you Hear From Me.” Iranian singer Sussan Deyhim’s singular contralto makes “Caravan” a particular highlight.
Jackson’s classical aspirations have been on display throughout his career, and he breezily tackles some of Ellington’s complex instrumental pieces. Guitar wizard Steve Vai and Berlin electronic musician Kris Ingram Lanzaro trade riffs on instrumentals like “The Mooche,” “Black and Tan Fantasy” and “Isfahan.” ?uestlove and other members of The Roots appear on multiple tracks, Lilian Vieira of the Brazilian/Dutch collective Zuco 103 brings “Perdido” to Portugal, and Jackson is also reunited with old compatriots like guitarist Vinnie Zummo and percussionist Sue Hadjopoulos.
But given the jazz provenance of these compositions, perhaps the most surprising musical choice is the horn section: there isn’t one. “That was my only rule,” Jackson says. “I wanted to take it in a completely different direction, and there was a danger of just sounding like watered-down Ellington if it wasn’t different enough. Not using horns was a good place to start. It makes you think: what else can we do?”
Jackson’s own bright, expressive piano style is on display on many of the tracks (particularly the excellent “Rockin’ In Rhythm”). It’s a tough job for any pianist to carve out a new interpretation of Ellington’s own signature stride-influenced piano work; Jackson makes it sound easy, and more importantly, he makes it sound fun.
The experiment pays off: this is Ellington like no Ellington you’ve heard, with classical and Latin influences giving way to electronica, dance, gypsy jazz, and rock. And if on occasion the arrangements veer just a hair’s breadth too close to smooth-jazz territory, the moments are brief. With a repertoire as willfully unconventional as Ellington’s, and in the hands of an artist as restless and enthusiastically contrary as Jackson, things never linger in the middle of the road for long.
For all the imagination and virtuosity on display here from Jackson and his guests, the most engaging moment might be Jackson’s take on “I Got It Bad (And That Ain’t Good),” a stirring vocal performance that is at the heart of the album. “What good is melody?/What good is music?/If it ain’t possessing something sweet?” Ellington famously asked on “It Don’t Mean A Thing.” A worthy tribute from one iconoclast to another, Joe Jackson’s The Duke is something sweet indeed.
The Duke was released by Razor & Tie on June 26. It is available from iTunes.
09/15: Bethesda, MD – Music Centre at Strathmore
09/16: Greenville, SC – Peace Center Hall
09/18: Glenside, PA – Keswick Theatre
09/19: Boston, MA – Wilbur Theatre
09/21: New York, NY – Town Hall
09/22: New York, NY – Town Hall
09/23: Westhampton Beach, NY – Performing Arts Center
09/25: Red Bank, NJ – Count Basie Theatre
09/27: Ann Arbor, MI – Michigan Theater
09/28: Chicago, IL – Vic Theatre
09/29: Milwaukee, WI – Pabst Theater
10/02: Seattle, WA – Moore Theatre
10/04: Saratoga, CA – The Lilian Fontaine Garden Theatre at Montalvo
10/05: San Francisco, CA – Nob Hill Masonic Center
10/06: Los Angeles, CA – Orpheum Theatre