Joe Jackson – The Duke

January 01, 1970

(Razor & Tie)


As might be guessed from the title, Joe Jackson’s 19th studio LP The Duke is a tribute to
jazz giant Duke Ellington. Jackson
has gone this route before, of course, with 1981’s Louis Jordan tribute Jumpin’ Jive. That record was so
reverent to the original arrangements as to invite comparisons, a standard
against which Jackson’s takes couldn’t possibly match.


Thirty-plus years later, Jackson doesn’t make the same
mistake. Jackson, his regular collaborators (drummer Dave Houghton and bassist
Graham Maby) and their buddies (including violinist Regina Carter, bassist
Christian McBride, guitarist Steve Vai and the Roots) personalize these songs,
keeping the original melodies prominently on display while adding contemporary
touches. Jackson puts “Caravan” to a funk fusion beat, letting that famous
melody soar, especially when sung in Farsi by Sussan Deyhim. “I Got It Bad (and
That Ain’t Good)” gets a strings-laden bossa nova makeover, while “I Ain’t Got
Nothin’ But the Blues” becomes a pop-R&B standard via Jackson’s upbeat
rearrangement and Sharon Jones’ irresistible vocals. Jackson gives “The Mooche”
over to a reggae beat and Vai’s manic guitar tones, while “It Don’t Mean a
Thing If It Ain’t Got That Swing” ropes in Iggy Pop as Jackson’s duet partner
and a laptop’s worth of samples to
contrast with the caffeinated grooves.


On the face of it, the aggressive fusioneering sounds like a
disaster in the making. But Jackson has learned much about craft and taste over
three decades of musical exploration, and his version of these well-known tunes
take the right chances and keeps the tracks from sounding stale. Besides,
straight imitations would do no one any favors, as he learned from Jumpin’ Jive. Jackson’s love for Ellington but
unwillingness to play it safe puts The
much closer in spirit to its inspiration than rote copies of originals
would ever have done.


Ain’t Got Nothin’ But the Blues,” “Caravan,” “It Don’t Mean a Thing If It Ain’t


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