Joe Jackson to pay tribute to ‘The Duke’ in Ann ArborWritten by Vicki L. Kroll | | firstname.lastname@example.org
No brass — that was the one rule Joe Jackson had while making a disc to honor jazz legend Duke Ellington.
“I decided not to use any horns because I didn’t want it to sound anything like Ellington and his band. Sometimes you just have to make certain rules and limit yourself in some ways because then it opens your imagination in other ways,” he said.
Released in June, “The Duke” debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard Contemporary Jazz Album Chart and the Billboard Current Jazz Album Chart. Jackson serves up fresh takes on 15 of the big band leader’s classics over 10 songs.
“The more I listened to other people’s versions of Ellington music, the more I thought that no matter how good they were, they really didn’t go far enough; they were too close to the originals,” Jackson said during a phone call from New York. “This idea just gradually grew on me — a whole project of new
interpretations of Ellington.”
And the singer-songwriter definitely used his imagination. Consider “Caravan.”
“I’m not a fan of Ellington’s lyrics. I mean, he didn’t write them himself anyway. A lot of his songs have really cheesy lyrics that were added after the fact,” Jackson said. “And ‘Caravan,’ the tune is so strange and exotic and mysterious, and as soon as you add the dopey English words to it, it spoils it for me. It’s one of the reasons why you never really hear it sung even though the tune is quite familiar.
“But I thought: What if it was sung in a different language? A language that was maybe more in keeping with the melody? And I had worked with [Iranian singer] Sussan Deyhim before — that was one of the first ideas I had for the record. So I contacted her, and she was very interested in the idea of translating it into Farsi.”
For “It Don’t Mean a Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing),” Jackson sings with punk icon Iggy Pop.
“I was just going to sing the song myself, and at one point I started experimenting lowering the key, lower than I normally would, and I just suddenly heard [Pop’s] voice in my head,” he recalled. “And I thought, ‘That’s weird, why am I hearing that?’ And I went and put on one of his records, and the song ‘The Passenger’ turned out to be in exactly the same range.
“And I thought, ‘That’s an interesting idea, I wonder if he’d do it?’ I thought he might because I’ve met him a couple times; he’s a pretty cool guy and is open to doing different things. And he had fun doing it.”
The British musician enjoyed the no-brass challenge.
“I used a string quartet on three tracks, but in other cases, the guitar or keyboards. There are a lot of different colors on the record that are taking the place of the horns,” he explained. “Regina Carter’s violin, for instance, is a big sort of voice in this. She’s touring with us as well, which I think is very exciting.”
Jackson is touring to support “The Duke” this fall with a limited number of U.S. shows. He will play at 8:30 p.m. Sept. 27 at the Michigan Theater in Ann Arbor. Tickets range from $35 to $65.
Since his 1979 debut “Look Sharp!”, Jackson — like Ellington — has experimented with all kinds of music. He was part of the pop, punk, New Wave movement with hits “Is She Really Going Out With Him?” and “I’m the Man.” His smooth styling surfaced on 1982’s “Night and Day,” which featured “Steppin’ Out” and “Breaking Us in Two,” and 1984’s “Body and Soul” that included “You Can’t Get What You Want (Till You Know What You Want).”
“I don’t even really think of it in terms of styles, and that’s one of the things I admire about Ellington: He had no respect for musical categories or genres. He said there’s only two kinds of music — good and bad. And I’ve always kind of felt like that,” Jackson said.
“If I just allow myself to be free and spontaneous and just make music, that’s the way it comes out — it comes out very eclectic.”