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Joe Jackson Meets The Duke

When asked what his next project will be, Joe Jackson states that he doesn’t have a clue. Rather than planning ahead, the chameleon-like singer songwriter stays aware of his muse’s arrival and then follows that process through to completion.

By never remaining creatively stagnant Jackson’s defied expectations and thrilled fans. His earliest releases were based on punk rock’s energy, and included the timeless paean to unrequited love, “Is She Really Going Out With Him?” He then turned his back on angry young man music and made albums over the next 33 years that moved from genre to genre — reggae, jump blues, sophisticated pop, film scores and symphonies – while adapting each style towards his distinct musical personality.

His artistic instincts have now led him to record a tribute to one of his musical heroes, the legendary composer, arranger, pianist and bandleader Duke Ellington. On The Duke Jackson interprets 15 Ellington numbers with the aid of ?uestlove (The Roots), Christian McBride, Regina Carter, Sharon Jones, Iggy Pop, Steve Vai, Vinnie Zummo, Zuco 103 and his longtime percussionist Sue Hadjopoulos.

Carter and Hadjopoulos also join him as part of his backing band during his current world tour. “We’re going to be playing most of the album live. Not all of it. There’s a couple of tracks that for various reasons don’t really work, but we’ve made most of it work really well, I think. So, we’re going to be doing that and a whole lot of my old songs as well.”

It should be no surprise that Jackson and his sextet will reveal further dimensions of the material on The Duke live. His attention to detail and inventive arrangements have made past concerts memorable experiences.

During our conversation I related two moments that stood out above the rest — a solo piano version of “Eleanor Rigby” I witnessed during his Night and Day II tour that had no business being as jaw-dropping as it was and a dressing down of late-arriving concertgoers who caused havoc in the fifth row center just as a the evening’s fourth song began. The justifiably irritated Jackson finished with, “And don’t bother asking for “Is She Really Going Out With Him?” We already played that.” And the sold out crowd cheered.

When I recalled the last incident Jackson laughs in amazement at what he had done. His demeanor may be relaxed at this time but for such a serious musician it wouldn’t be a surprise if such an occurrence happens again.

JPG: The Duke, Duke Ellington: obviously people have heard his music and there’s a superficial enjoyment of something that’s catchy and has a strong melody and that sort of thing, but for yourself was there a moment where his music got inside on a much deeper level and what did it do to you?

JJ: I don’t remember. I really don’t remember the first time I became aware of Duke Ellington. I must have been 14, 15, 16 years old, something like that; just kind of exploring the world of music, frantically and obsessively, all kinds of music. I think later as a student, when I was 19 or so, I got more interested, especially in his later music and then studying his scores. A lot later, I started to appreciate his early music as well. It’s been a drawn-out process. I can’t really say there was some great moment of revelation. It gradually grew on me just how great, how important Ellington was and is.

I’ve been asked by a few people to sum up in one sentence why Duke Ellington is great, why he’s important. And I think what’s great about him is exactly the fact that you can’t do that. There are some people like Shakespeare or Beethoven or Picasso or whoever it is; you can’t just come up why they’re great. You could spend a whole lifetime exploring their work and that is what makes it great. There are just people like that.

JPG: I’m really glad that I was sent the CD with your essay about Duke Ellington and your reaction to him, as well as, your approach to making the album. I thought it was a nice, honest assessment including your criticism of his lyrics. (slight laugh from Jackson) As far as tackling Ellington’s music after all these years, was it a matter that, maybe, consciously or subconsciously you had to kind of apprentice on the catalogue of Louis Jordan and Cab Calloway and make albums such as Jumpin’ Jive and Body and Soul and all kinds of other stuff before you finally got to this point?

JJ: Oh, I haven’t thought of it like that. I don’t see any parallels really between Jumpin’ Jive and this record. Jumpin’ Jive was just something that…I did a little musical vacation and to have a bit of fun playing the music rather badly in a very amateurish English sort of way but having fun with it.

I don’t think I did anything very clever with the arrangements. The Duke project is much more of a labor of love, much more personal, really much more of a Joe Jackson album.

JPG: When I bring those other albums up I mean as far as working through the material from the ‘30s and ‘40s, the Swing Era, and bringing in those horn arrangements, even though you don’t use horns on The Duke. Having said that brings up this why tackle the music of Duke Ellington now, rather than doing it years ago?

JJ: I don’t know. It beats me. Creative process, I think. I don’t know why I wrote songs on Rain four years ago as opposed to 15 years ago.

I guess there’s some process going on of touring and learning but I’m a very intuitive type of artist. I don’t really_ plan_ things ahead or do things for…I don’t do anything for a kind of ideological reason. It’s actually quite difficult for me to answer these “Why” questions. I always cringe a bit when someone says, “Why did you do this?” I always want to say, “Why not?” There’s no reason.

JPG: That would make for a quick interview.

JJ: So, why now? I really don’t know. Maybe that’s how long it took to grow somewhere in the back of my mind.

JPG: I noticed that you covered Duke Ellington’s “Moon Indigo” here and on your previous Summer in the City album.

JJ: Yeah. That’s right.

JPG: On that number, did you go back to the original Ellington and then work from there or did you work from the trio format of “Moon Indigo” from Summer in the City ?

JJ: I took my own earlier version as a starting point. I did go back and listen to the Ellington version, and one thing I wanted to do that was not on the trio version was the intro and outro, which is very unusual. At the time it was recorded it was a strikingly original combination of three instruments playing in close harmony. It’s really difficult. I wanted to get the same sort of effect but not using horns. So, in my arrangement it’s violin, harmonica and accordion. And I think it works really nicely.

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