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Joe Jackson explores Duke Ellington’s catalog on latest album

Eclectic English musician discusses the making of 'The Duke'

By Chris M. Junior

Joe Jackson_2012

Recording jazz-flavored songs is nothing new for Joe Jackson, and neither is recording an entire album of covers. And while “The Duke” finds Jackson exploring both jazz and outside material, the eclectic English musician focuses only on one artist: American legend Edward Kennedy “Duke” Ellington.

Not long before his death in 1974, Ellington defined jazz as “freedom of expression” — and on “The Duke,” Jackson confidently follows that artistic approach by putting his stamp on works either written by Ellington, among them “It Don’t Mean a Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing),” or closely associated with him, such as “Take the ‘A’ Train.”

The way Jackson explains it, “I revere Duke Ellington, but I didn’t want this to be a reverent album.”

Prior to Razor & Tie’s June 26th release of “The Duke,” Jackson talked about his approach to Ellington’s material, some of the album’s guest musicians and other related subjects.

Goldmine: When and how did you become familiar with Duke Ellington, and how did his music fit in with everything else you were listening to at that point in your life?

Joe Jackson: I would have been in my midteens. I was probably 16, 17, something like that, but I don’t remember exactly the first Ellington piece I ever heard or anything like that. But I definitely became aware of Ellington around that time, and I got interested in jazz in general. I think I pretty soon realized that Ellington … really goes beyond category, and that’s the kind of artist who excited me and influenced me.

GM: What aspects of your piano playing were influenced by Ellington’s style and approach to the instrument?

JJ: I don’t think I’ve been influenced by Ellington very much at all, actually. Although I do think he’s a great piano player — and I think he’s an underrated piano player. I like his style; it’s a very interesting style, but I don’t think it’s anything like how I play. I think I’m probably more influenced by people like Horace Silver. … Ellington was a great piano player. He was very modern, and his playing is very ahead of its time. It’s often quite dissonant and quite jarring. You think, “My God, what is he doing?” But after a while you realize it makes sense, and it that respect, I find him to be a bit like Thelonious Monk.

GM: A lot of tribute albums are straightforward readings of songs as they were written and originally arranged, and some are experimental with a fair amount of interpretation. “The Duke” belongs somewhere in the middle. Talk about how you developed your approach to these Ellington songs, as well as how you balanced your responsibilities as performer and bandleader.

JJ: OK, well, you are entitled to your opinion — you see it the way you see it. I would say it’s quite a long way from the originals. I mean, I guess I didn’t throw out so much of the original compositions that they’re not even recognizable anymore; I guess that would be the other extreme. So in that sense, I guess, it’s somewhere in the middle. But virtually everything Ellington ever did features lots of horns, and I have no horns at all. And I made a point of keeping sounds that were nothing like what Ellington did. And the rhythmical grooves of everything are completely different. … I didn’t change the lyrics, and for the most part, I didn’t really change the basic chord progressions, so in that sense, they’re still recognizable as Ellington songs. But I think I took them about as far away from the original arrangements while still being able to recognize the songs.

For me, this is really very much a Joe Jackson album rather than a Duke Ellington album — or at least as much as, let’s put it that way. Instead of me writing the basic compositions, this is really featuring me as bandleader and arranger and as keyboard player and singer. So it’s everything else I do, except for [songwriting], really brought to the fore. And my biggest inspiration in that was Ellington, in the way that he was such a brilliant arranger and the way that he would lead his band, which was always a collection of prima donnas. It was like 18 soloists, 18 superstars up there, and he had a way of showcasing everyone in the band, so everyone was able to shine. And that’s something I’ve always tried to do, actually.

GM: Speaking of superstars, you have quite a few big names on this album — Steve Vai and Iggy Pop, among others. What qualities were you looking for in those guest players? They all come from different eras and styles, yet they all seem to fit into the total theme.

JJ: That’s right. I was looking for people who I felt were charismatic and interesting in their own right without sticking too rigidly to one category or another. I mean, most people would describe Regina Carter as a jazz violinist, but I knew she was pretty versatile; her latest album is all African folk music. Christian McBride — most people would call him a jazz bassist, but he’s worked with all kinds of [artists]. So I think that was the case with all of [them]. … They’re just unique, interesting, charismatic musicians, and that’s what I wanted — and again, that’s what Ellington did. He put a band together of people like that.

GM: Was there one individual song or song combination that was especially challenging in terms of arranging, performing or recording?

JJ: They all had their own sort of challenges. “It Don’t Mean a Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing)” — the challenge was coming up with a groove that wasn’t just a classic swing groove from the 1930s. Also, with “Caravan,” at first I couldn’t quite figure out what the groove was. I experimented a lot and ended up with this strange hybrid of Latin and Afrobeat that I really like; I think it turned out great. … “I Got It Bad (And That Ain’t Good)” I didn’t intend to sing originally. In fact, we went through several people, trying to get someone else to sing it. And I don’t know if it was fate or what, but none of them seemed to be available, and people kept telling me I should sing it myself, so I ended up singing it.

GM: You have a U.S. tour scheduled for September and October. What can fans expect to hear each night from the new album and from your back catalog?

JJ: We’re going to be playing most of the new album. I don’t know that we’ll play all of it, but we’re going to play most of it, and Regina Carter is in the band, so there’s that link to the album — and also Sue Hadjopoulos on percussion. Otherwise, it’s mostly new people [in the band]. We’re going to do a selection of my stuff going right back to the beginning, but I’m not going to get more specific than that because I always think it’s nice for there to be a few surprises when you go see a show. God knows there are not that many shows that I get any surprises from, so I think it’s nice when it happens.