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Joe Jackson Meets The Duke

JPG: Bringing something you’ve done in the past to this project, when I was listening to “Caravan” on The Duke I was hearing a taste from your original composition, “Chinatown” (from 1982’s Night and Day album). Is that just me or did “Chinatown” have an influence from Ellington going through it (sings the string part that’s similar to the string section of “Caravan.”)

JJ: I really hadn’t thought of the connection but I see what you mean. It’s just an odd, angular, exotic little melody in “Caravan.” And I think, maybe, “Chinatown,” is a similar kind of thing. It has a little bit of a Middle Eastern flavor but it isn’t really. It’s kind of looking at it in a way without really using those specific scales or whatever.

JPG: Alright. So, I’m not as insane as I thought.

JJ: I don’t think you are. Anybody makes different connections.

JPG: Thank you. I guess score one for me.

JJ: It’s not a competition. (laughs)

JPG: (laughs) With your version of “It Don’t Mean A Thing” it’s interesting that out of all the numbers on there it’s the one where it really goes out there with vocal samples and you and Iggy trading vocals…Was it a matter of letting it all go and thinking that this has to be the last number on the album because it might throw too much at people if it’s earlier in the tracking?

JJ: There’s a helluva a lot going on in “Caravan,” too. The way it turned out I felt like it was a natural finale.

JPG: That brings us to the musicians on “The Duke.” First off and this is just an aside, is it true what I read that your longtime bassist Graham Maby lost his wife earlier this year?

JJ: Yes

JPG: Oh, that’s sad. That’s really too bad. Is that why he didn’t play on The Duke ?

JJ: That was one reason, but actually that was not the only reason because I really wanted to use acoustic bass on some of the songs. He doesn’t play acoustic bass so that’s how I ended up working with Christian McBride.

JPG: I see. I guess it’s a matter of always finding you working with Graham on record and onstage…

JJ: Yeah, it’s very weird to be rehearsing right now without him. Touring without him…but I’ve got a great guy to replace him who plays electric and acoustic and tuba: Jesse Murphy [John Scofield, Brazilian Girls] . He’s really good and I’m pretty happy but it’s a shame.

JPG: Hopefully, he’s doing okay after that tragedy, which is the more important thing. It’s a real interesting combination of musicians on the album – ?uestlove, Christian McBride and Regina Carter who have a jazz past but Sharon Jones and Steve Vai, who is normally thought of as a Heavy Metal guitarist. How did you bring this grouping together?

JJ: Well, some of them were people that I had in mind right from the beginning. On The Duke there were three guys I wanted to work with for awhile, Zuco 103, and we started off the recording with them in the studio and after that…

JPG: Who?

JJ: Zuco 103, this great band that no one in the states seems to have heard of… (slight laugh)

JPG: …Until now.

JJ: We collaborated on two of the tracks on the record – “Perdido” and “It Don’t Mean a Thing.” Then, there’s their singer who does the vocals in Portuguese on “Perdido” and is absolutely brilliant. The other guys in the band are Dutch and German.

So, I really wanted to work with them. I also wanted to do work with [Iranian singer] Sussan Deyhim on “Caravan.” We talked about this a long time ago. I really wanted to do “Caravan” and I had an arrangement in mind but, like a lot of these Ellington songs, the lyrics are so cheesy that they actually kind of spoil it. (slight laugh) I started grappling with this problem and I came up with the idea of maybe having them sung in different languages, which at least would make them exotic unless you’re Iranian, I guess. But Sussan loved the idea of singing “Caravan” in Farsi. And I think she did a great job as well. So, that was an idea that goes right back to the beginning.

Regina was also someone that I wanted to work with for a long time. And then the other people, it started to take shape after that. Ahmir (?uestlove) was interested. When I found out that him and Christian McBride had actually worked together, were old friends and had made an album together, then I thought, “Oh my God. I’ve got to put these two guys together.” It just went a step at a time. I’d worked with Steve Vai once before as well. He’s a great guy, a phenomenal musician. I mean it’s really weird that people think that’s he’s only heavy metal when he played with Frank Zappa.

But the idea, overall really was to do what Ellington did, which was to feature very interesting charismatic individuals who are stars in their own right. Many of the people in Ellington’s band were bigger stars in their own right and he was able to share the spotlight with these people. But at the same time be in charge, be the guy who determined the Big Picture. That’s one of the ways that I’ve been inspired by Ellington in my own work. It’s one way to do that, especially in the case of this record.

JPG: Now someone with your schooled/educated background, when you go into something like this, do you actually chart out what you would want Regina or Christian to do or do you just discuss it, maybe play it on the piano and show them what you want?

JJ: It depends on the musician. Christian and Regina and Steve Vai and (guitarist) Vinnie Zummo all have charts. The strings have charts. The arrangements were pretty specific. It was very much worked out before we got into the studio. There’s also some…I mean, you can tell by listening to it, I think, where there are passages that are left to run free for solos.

JPG: When I was preparing for this and looking over all your work it surprised me that you’ve never really been cornered by record companies where you have to make Look Sharp or Night and Day again and again…

JJ: What are they going to do? They can’t force you. They can’t put a gun to my head and force me to make a certain type of record. (slight laugh)

JPG: I’m thinking of your diverse career and then someone like Neil Young, where he was sued by his record company because he didn’t make what they thought should be…

JJ: Really?

JPG: Yes. During the early ‘80s he was making albums that were electronic and rockabilly rather than the electric or country rock stuff the record company expected.

JJ: Well, it could be because he owed them a lot of money. I don’t know. I’ve always tried to make sure that I don’t owe a lot of money to record companies because that gives them more power. I’d rather not take a big advance. That’s part of it. That’s just a business decision. Maybe it wasn’t that much fun for them trying to get him to do what they wanted him to do.

It’s better to leave me alone. It’s been a long time since a record company had very much input anyway. These days, record companies, there’s like, what, two really big ones left? The rest, they’re all kind of independent. They just don’t have anywhere near the power that they had in any way including the power over the artist. People are making their own records at home and releasing them on the internet now. I don’t see why anyone needs to do what a record company tells them to.

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