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Joe Jackson at 60: Stepping Out with "The Duke"

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What has become of the angry young men of our youth? In the case of Joe Jackson, who turns 60 today, they turn their talents to jazz.
Truth be told, while Jackson certainly ruffled some cultural feathers upon emerging from the British pop scene of the late 1970s, his music always ran more toward the lyrically and sonically sophisticated sounds of Elvis Costello than the nihilism-at-all-costs approach the Sex Pistols personified. A classically trained pianist, Jackson played more than a few jazz gigs in his formative years in England.
After gaining worldwide fame with the power pop of his first two albums – “Look Sharp!” and “I’m the Man” (both 1979) – he quickly began incorporating other genres into his sound.
“Beat Crazy” (1980) featured touches of jazz and salsa rhythms but failed to find an audience; “Night and Day” (1982) was an ode to the cool jazz sophistication of Cole Porter and proved a huge success thanks to the singles “Stepping Out” and “Breaking Us In Two.” (Jackson released “Night and Day II” in 2000.) “Body and Soul” (1984) announced its influences openly: the cover apes Sonny Rollins’ epochal “Vol. 2.”
Jazz and blues dominate “Joe Jackson’s Jumpin’ Jive” (1981), a glorious swing thing that pre-dated the genre’s mid-‘90s revival by a decade and a half. If you’re looking for an accessible way to introduce a pop fan to jazz, get this album.
The project came about, Jackson wrote in 1998, after he broke up his original band and came down with glandular fever. A friend lent him a Louis Jordan album and Jackson was so taken with what he heard that he went out and scored as much swing and jump blues as he could find. From there, the idea evolved: Why not get a few guys together to play this stuff? Maybe do a few gigs. Or even record.
The resulting album is both a joyous celebration of the music and a fond remembrance of a (now even more) bygone era. Jackson and his six-piece band charge through such horn-happy material as “Jumpin’ With Symphony Sid,” “Is You Is Or Is You Ain’t My Baby?” “Tuxedo Junction,” “Five Guys Named Moe” and the street-zen treatise “What’s the Use of Getting Sober (When You’re Gonna Get Drunk Again).”
This is the not the serious, sober jazz of be bop and beyond; on “Joe Jackson’s Jumpin’ Jive,” jazz’s forms are harnessed to shameless, heedless entertainment, pure pop for the now people of the 1940s. This thing swings – exuberantly, unabashedly so. “Joe Jackson’s Jumpin’ Jive” is a must for every jazz (and pop) fan’s collection.
Jackson, who is nothing if not a musical expeditionary, has continued to explore the genre. He is among the pianists featured on “That's The Way I Feel Now: A Tribute to Thelonious Monk” (1986), turning in a haunting take on “’Round Midnight.” More recently, he received sterling reviews and topped the Billboard jazz chart with “The Duke” (2012).
“The Duke” celebrates the Ellington canon in a distinctly Jackson manner. There are plenty of recognized jazz greats on the disc (Regina Carter, Christian McBride) but Jackson teams them with an eclectic array of instrumentalists (rock guitarist Steve Vai, Roots drummer Questlove Thompson) and voices (Iggy Pop, Sharon Jones). Iran's Sussan Deyhim sings "Caravan" while Lilian Vieira renders "Perdido" in Portuguese. Jackson sings on just four tracks.
It’s worth noting that there are no horns on “The Duke.” Here is what Jackson had to say about the project in a press release.

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There were two reasons to (not use horns) -- I didn't want to compete with Ellington's versions and I wanted to take the arrangements in different directions. That forced me to use my imagination more because it's quite often true that the idea of complete freedom is an illusion. There has to be rules to channel the imagination.
You can't narrow it down – his 50 years of music is so diverse and so fascinating that you could spend an entire lifetime returning to this music and studying it," he says. "Our process (for the album) was the same creatively only we were re-inventing instead of inventing. The compositions are so sturdy there were so many possibilities to explore. It might be the fact that I'm not a jazz musician so I'm coming from outside the tradition and I'm open to ideas like using synthesizers.
Ellington didn't respect categorization. It's not jazz – it's just American music he would say. The jazz musicians who did record with me helped to give the album a personality. Regina and Christian were just awesome with the way they approached this thing because they're not jazz purists."

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