Imagine pouring yourself a glass of whiskey in a dimly lit living-room, relaxed, on a comfy leather sofa listening to Joe Jackson’s new album, The Duke (e.a.r Music / distribution Love Da Records). How fitting! A tribute to jazz legend Duke Ellington featuring guitarist Steve Vai, violinist Regina Carter, singers Sue Hadjopoulos, Sharon Jones and even Iggy Pop on ‘It Don’t Mean a Thing’.
“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.
True to Jackson’s word, The Duke is a decidedly unconventional salute to Ellington, demonstrating the timeless brilliance of his classic compositions while showcasing Jackson’s sublime skills as an arranger, instrumentalist and vocal interpreter. Although it’s only the second time he’s recorded an album not comprised of his own compositions, The Duke is nonetheless a deeply personal project for Jackson, whose longstanding affinity for Ellington’s pioneering spirit has served as a key inspiration throughout his own three-decades-plus career.
The Duke finds the iconoclastic English singer/composer/arranger/keyboardist and five-time Grammy nominee interpreting 15 Ellington classics over the course of ten tracks, interspersing melodic and rhythmic elements of various compositions in a manner that’s consistent with Ellington’s own freewheeling approach. Rather than emulating the songs’ original big-band settings, Jackson filters the material through his own musical imagination while an assortment of unexpected grooves and textures. The resulting album is a seamless fusion of sounds and styles, whose abundant sense of playfulness is consistent with Ellington’s boundary-breaking attitude.
“Ellington didn’t consider his own arrangements or his own recordings to be sacred,” Jackson notes. “He constantly changed and rearranged his own music, sometimes quite radically. And his tunes are so strong that they stand up to all sorts of different interpretations. So I think that my approach on this album is in the spirit of the man himself.”
To bring the project to fruition, Jackson recruited an eclectic team of musical free spirits, including legendary engineer Elliot Scheiner, The Roots’ Amir ‘?uestlove’ Thompson on drums, renowned jazz bassist Christian McBride, noted jazz violinist Regina Carter, rock guitar hero Steve Vai, the Dutch/Brazilian trio Zuco 103 and the New York string quartet Ethel, along with such longtime Jackson collaborators as guitarist Vinnie Zummo and percussionist Sue Hadjapoulos.
In keeping with Ellington’s propensity for sharing the spotlight, Jackson chose to enlist the talents of several other singers on The Duke. While his own distinctive voice is featured on “I’m Beginning To See The Light”, “Mood Indigo”, “I Got It Bad (and That Ain’t Good)”, Jackson’s rousing reworking of “It Don’t Mean A Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing)” finds him trading vocals with punk icon Iggy Pop, and acclaimed R&B diva Sharon Jones shines with a soulful rendition “I Ain’t Got Nothin’ But The Blues.”
Elsewhere, The Duke nods towards Ellington’s fondness for multiculturalism with Sussan Deyhim’s soaring Farsi translation of “Caravan” and Zuco 103 member Lilian Vieira’s sunny Portuguese-language reading of “Perdido.”
Meanwhile, Ellington’s knack for indelible, evocative melodies is demonstrated on The Duke‘s eloquent instrumental readings of “Isfahan”, “Rockin’ In Rhythm”, “The Mooche” and “Black and Tan Fantasy”, which exemplify the album’s mix of organic and electronic textures.
Watch Joe Jackson in his studio: a peak behind the process of creating a modern classic:
Jackson avoided using horns on The Duke – an audacious move, considering how prominent horns were in Ellington’s original versions. “That was one of the only rules that I made for this record,” he says. “I wanted to take it in a completely different direction, and I knew that there was a danger of just sounding like a watered-down version of Ellington if it wasn’t different enough. Not using horns seemed like a good place to start, because that makes you think, well, what else can we do?”
“One of the things I’m proudest of on this album is the way we did medleys or mash-ups of more than one tune,” he continues. “I also liked the idea of doing a couple of tunes in different languages. I don’t think that Ellington really cared that much about lyrics, and it’s interesting that so many of his tunes are so well known, but the lyrics are not. So one of my earliest thoughts about this project was that it might be fun to hear these really familiar tunes sung in unfamiliar languages.”
The Duke embodies the passion for Ellington’s music that Jackson has maintained since his teens. “I loved that that there was so much going on and that it was kind of hard to pin down,” he recalls. “Within the space of one side of a 78 RPM disc, he could go through several different moods, brilliantly and seamlessly. It really spoke to me.”
Ellington’s example also shaped how Jackson approached his own music, even when he was playing raw rock ‘n’ roll in the wake of the British punk movement. “One of the things I learned from him is 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 being a leader without being a dictator, and ofrealizing his own vision while allowing other people to shine. That affected the way that I approached my own bands. Ellington was a big-picture guy, and that’s what I’ve always tried to be.”
The Duke is fueled by the same restless creative urge that’s allowed Joe Jackson’s catalogue to encompass a broad array of styles and approaches, while maintaining the fierce individuality with which he began his career. He began to build his resume while still in his teens, studying composition at London’s Royal Academy of Music, playing piano in England’s National Youth Jazz Orchestra and recording a pair of singles as a member of the pre-punk combo Arms and Legs.
Jackson’s first three albums Look Sharp!, I’m The Man and Beat Crazy, all released between 1979 and 1980, showcased his catchy, hard-hitting tunes and impassioned, articulate lyrics. Despite his commercial success during that period, he soon felt the need to spread his musical wings, first with 1981’s all-covers vintage-swing departure Jumpin’ Jive and 1982’s massively successful Night and Day, on which Jackson embraced a sophisticated, urban-influenced and explicitly adult approach.
Characteristically, Jackson used his increased commercial clout to tackle a lengthy series of ambitious, musically diverse recording projects, including the jazz/salsa-influenced Body and Soul (1984), the spare song cycle Big World (1986), the all-instrumental Will Power (1987), the semi-autobiographical Blaze of Glory (1989), the idiosyncratic adult-pop Laughter and Lust (1991), the gentle, soul-searching Night Music (1994), the satirical rock opera Heaven and Hell (1997), the neoclassical work Symphony No. 1 (1999) and the ambitious sequel Night and Day II (2000), as well as the in-concert sets Live 1980/86 (1988) and Summer in the City: Live in New York (2000).
In 2003, Jackson surprised fans by reuniting his I’m the Man-era band for an acclaimed new album, Volume 4, and a series of rapturously received tours. He retained that combo’s rhythm section for the 2008 trio effort Rain and its 2011 in-concert follow up Live Music.
In addition to his own albums, Jackson has also won acclaim for his work as a composer of film soundtracks, including his work on Francis Ford Coppola’s Tucker: the Man and His Dream, James Bridges’ Mike’s Murder and the Japanese IMAX presentation The House of the Poet. In 1999, Jackson published a well-received book, A Cure For Gravity, which recounts his early life and career.
Despite its status as an Ellington tribute, The Duke embodies the same sense of musical adventure that’s the common thread uniting his far-ranging catalogue.
“When I started this project,” Jackson states, “it felt a little daunting, like, ‘How am I gonna pull this off?’ But once it started to pick up momentum, it took on a life of its own. I got to play with people that I never thought I’d be able to get, and they were all extremely enthusiastic and supportive of the project. Things just fell into place and came together in a way that surpassed all my expectations, and I’m very excited and proud of the way that it’s turned out.”
03. I’m Beginning To See The Light / Take The ‘A’ Train / Cotton Tail
04. Mood Indigo
05. Rockin’ In Rhythm
06. I Ain’t Got Nothin’ But The Blues / Do Nothin’ ‘Til You Hear From Me
07. I Got It Bad (And That Ain’t Good)
08. Perdido / Satin Doll
09. The Mooche / Black And Tan Fantasy
10. It Don’t Mean A Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing)
Listen to the entiere album via The Duke’s Facebook app.