Jackson's loving irreverence for Ellington's classic tunes
Joe Jackson has been clear about his love of classic jazz. With Jumpin' Jive, he offered his tribute to Louis Jordan and other swing band writers. Night and Day seemed inspired by Cole Porter's work. Body and Soul celebrated a retro Latin and pop sound, both musically and in recording technique.
That brings us to Jackson's latest, The Duke, which takes on Duke Ellington. "I revere the Duke, but I didn't want to make a reverent album," says Joe Jackson. As his deeply personal liner notes present his perspective on this great American composer, Jackson makes the case that these eclectic interpretations of Ellington's work would be in keeping with the Duke's own approach.
Jackson's most surprising decision was to avoid the horns that Ellington is known for. He also found a number of impressive players to bring in newer influences, like Sharon Jones (the Dap Kings), stunt guitarist Steve Vai, and Ahmir ?uestLove Thompson (the Roots) among others.
The album opens with Isfahan. The moody start sets a simple, stripped down groove. Vai's '80s jazz fusion guitar, modern synth washes, and a lush piano sound make this a solid track, but the album really kicks into gear with the next track, Caravan.
Caravan has become such a jazz standard, that it's hard to find a new angle. Jackson does a great job, setting an Afrobeat percussion against a Jeff Beck style jazz fusion groove. The solid funky bass foundation, the tight drums, and the chanky rhythm guitar build steadily to create a tasty exotic tension. Susan Deyhim's vocals are beautiful, giving her Farsi lyrics a retro cabaret feel. The mix of modern and retro elements make this my favorite track on the album.
The other hot track is the medley of I Ain't Got Nothing But the Blues/Do Nothin' 'Til You Hear From Me. Sharon Jones' confident blues singing is expressively soulful. Jackson's piano work is solid on the uptempo blues drive, especially on his solo. The transition to the moodier Do Nothin' features a stripped down sound and a sweet melodica run down of the head melody. This contrasting interlude sets up the return to the head. Jones sells the track, but Jackson does a great job as a blues player.
There are plenty of other interesting sounds and choices: the surprising overlap of Take The 'A' Train's lead over the changes for I'm Beginning To See the Light, the Elton John ballad sound of Mood Indigo, the string arrangement on I Got It Bad (And That Ain't Good), and the dark ska vibe of The Mooche. The most controversial reinvention might be It Don't Mean a Thing (If It Ain't Got That Swing). The basic chop rhythm guitar groove is accented with samples and synths. Jackson and Iggy Pop share vocal duties. Even though the core of the arrangement stays true to a big band sound, these additions will certainly raise some eyebrows.
But Ellington himself expanded on his own pieces later in his career and numerous artists covered them during his lifetime. Overall, Joe Jackson's personal interpretations of Ellington's tunes are worthy statements on their own. He may be pushing some boundaries, but his regard for the Master is never in doubt.