“I revere the Duke, but I didn’t want to make a reverent album”, Joe Jackson says of The Duke, his new tribute to jazz legend Duke Ellington.
The Duke is indeed an unconventional salute to Ellington, demonstrating the timeless brilliance of his compositions while showcasing Jackson’s skills as arranger, instrumentalist and singer. Though it’s his second album of non-original material (after 1981’s Jumpin’ Jive) it’s nonetheless a deeply personal project for Jackson, whose affinity for Ellington has been an inspiration throughout his own three-decade-plus career.
The Duke finds the iconoclastic Jackson – a five-time Grammy nominee – interpreting 15 Ellington classics over ten tracks, ingeniously combining several songs into medleys. Rather than emulating the original big-band arrangements, Jackson filters the material through his own musical imagination. The result is a surprising yet seamless fusion of styles, whose abundant playfulness is consistent with Ellington’s own freewheeling approach.
“Ellington didn’t consider his own arrangements to be sacred”, Jackson notes. “He constantly reworked them, sometimes quite radically. So I think my approach is in the spirit of the man himself”.
Jackson’s distinctive voice is featured on I’m Beginning To See The Light, Mood Indigo, and I Got It Bad (And That Ain’t Good), while It Don’t Mean A Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing) finds him trading vocals with punk icon Iggy Pop. R&B diva Sharon Jones, meanwhile, shines with a soulful I Ain’t Got Nothin’ But The Blues. In keeping with Ellington’s multiculuralism, Jackson also encouraged Iranian singer Sussan Deyhim to perform a soaring Caravan in Farsi, and Lilian Vieira, of the Brazilian/Dutch collective Zuco 103, to create a sunny, sexy Portuguese version of Perdido.
The album’s striking mix of electronic and organic textures is especially evident on instrumentals like Isfahan, Rockin’ In Rhythm, The Mooche, and Black and Tan Fantasy. The musicians include two contemporary jazz stars, violinist Regina Carter and bassist Christian McBride; rock guitar hero Steve Vai; drummer Ahmir ‘?uestlove’ Thompson and other members of The Roots; and two of Jackson’s old associates, guitarist Vinnie Zummo and percussionist Sue Hadjopoulos. Two tracks, Perdido and It Don’t Mean A Thing, were recorded in Amsterdam in collaboration with Zuco 103. The remaing tracks were recorded – and the whole album mixed – in New York by the legendary Elliot Scheiner.
Jackson used no horns on The Duke – an audacious move, considering how they dominated the original recordings. “That was my only rule”, he 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?” So, instead of reeds and brass, the album features synthesizers, vibraphone, accordion and string quartet.
Jackson’s passion for Ellington goes back to his teens. “I loved the fact that there was so much going on, yet it was kind of hard to pin down,” he recalls. “Within the space of 3 minutes he could go through several different moods, brilliantly and seamlessly”. Ellington’s example also shaped Jackson’s own musical approach, even when he was playing raw rock’n’roll in the wake of the British punk movement. “One of things I learned from him was how to work with musicians,” he says. “He was able to showcase the personality of every player in his band, yet still be completely in control. He had a way of leading without being a dictator, of realizing his own vision while allowing others to shine. Ellington was a big-picture guy, and that’s what I’ve aspired to be”.
The Duke is fuelled by the same restless creative urge that has made Joe Jackson’s catalogue so eclectic, yet fiercely individual. He started building his resume as a teenager, studying composition at London’s Royal Academy of Music and recording a pair of singles with pre-punk combo Arms and Legs.
Jackson’s first three albums – Look Sharp!, I’m The Man and Beat Crazy, released between 1979 and 1980 – combined catchy, hard-hitting tunes with articulate, often humorous lyrics. Despite early commercial success, Jackson soon spread his musical wings, first with Jumpin’ Jive and then 1982’s massively successful Night and Day, on which he embraced a more sophisticated, adult approach, influenced as much by jazz and latin music as rock. He continued in a similar vein with Body and Soul (1984) Big World (1986), Blaze of Glory (1989) and Laughter and Lust (1991).
Jackson turned further away from the pop mainstream with the gentle, soul-searching Night Music (1994), the satirical rock-opera Heaven and Hell (1997) and Symphony No. 1, which won the 2000 Grammy for Best Pop Instrumental Album. Also in 2000, Joe released the belated sequel Night and Day II, a personal favourite which he has called his ‘most underrated album’. In 2003, Jackson surprised fans by reuniting the band from his first three albums for an acclaimed album of new songs, Volume 4, and a successful world tour. Relocating to Berlin in 2008, he recorded the minimal yet majestic Rain with just piano, voice, and his original rhythm section. The trio have since toured extensively, and in 2010 released Jackson’s favourite of his several live records, Live Music.
In addition to his own albums, Jackson has written several film scores, notably for Francis Ford Coppola’s Tucker and James Bridges’ Mike’s Murder. He has also played piano and/or sung on records by Suzanne Vega, Joan Armatrading, Ruben Blades, Rickie Lee Jones, Nina Hagen, and William Shatner. In 1999, Jackson published a well-received book, A Cure For Gravity, which he described as ‘a book about music disguised as a memoir’.
ThoughThe Duke is a tribute album, it’s also very much a Joe Jackson album, consistent with his longstanding sense of musical adventure.
“When I started this”, Jackson says, “It felt a little daunting – like, how am I gonna pull this off? But it started to pick up momentum, and took on a life of its own. I got to work with people I never thought I’d be able to get, and they were all extremely enthusiastic and supportive of the project. It all came together in a way that surpassed my expectations. And it’s been a hell of a lot of fun”.