Joe Jackson's Latest Is a Tribute to Duke Ellington Featuring Iggy Pop, Sharon Jones and More

Frank Veronsky
It's hard to find a through line in Joe Jackson's eclectic career other than Joe Jackson. The British singer-songwriter made a name for himself on the back of a pair of classic new wave hits, "Is She Really Going Out with Him?" and "Steppin' Out," but Jackson is hardly your average pop star. Classically-trained, Jackson has explored a variety of styles across his 30 plus year career, from swing to salsa. His latest is a tribute to one of his heroes, Duke Ellington, and which features an eclectic list of guests including Sharon Jones, Iggy Pop and Steve Vai. We chatted with Jackson about the record, his varied career and the death of the record store. Jackson plays The Moore Theater ("exactly the kind of place I like to play," he said) tonight.

Where did the germ of this idea come from? I don't know where inspiration comes from. I'm not sure anyone does really. And I'm not trying to be clever but I don't have a better answer. I just found that Ellington tunes kept coming into my head and I would just be experimenting with different arrangements. I do remember being in South Africa, where we played a few years ago for the first time, walking down a street in Cape Town and hearing a very interesting, funky rhythm coming out of a shop. And a tune of Ellington's came into my head at the same time and I heard it playing over this rhythm. Another one was that I realized the tune of "I'm Beginning to See the Light" and "Take the 'A' Train" could be played at the same time with the same chords. Weird things like that were just accumulating in my mind to the point where I started to think, "You know, I wonder if this could be a whole record, an Ellington tribute." It was very much the same creative process as if I was making an album of my own stuff. Ideas come to you. God knows where they come from, but they accumulate.

Which was first for you in your youth, pop music or jazz? I grew up as a kid with The Beatles and The Stones and The Kinks, but from the age of 11 I took violin lessons and learned to read music. I don't know what you can say is really my roots, there's more than one. By the time I was in my mid-teens I was very interested in jazz, but I was interested in all kinds of music. There are certain things that have been constants for me, people that I really admire who are these heroes for me, and one of them is Ellington.

I'm fairly certain Iggy Pop and Steve Vai have never been on the same record. How did you approach collaborators and did you have specific pieces in mind for each or did you simply recruit folks you wanted to work with and go from there? It was definitely the other way around. I always knew that I wanted to have several different voices, and not just singing voices but instrumental voices, so to speak. The first people I thought of were Sussan Deyhim and Lilian Vieira of Zuco 103, which is a band I really like and I had met before. And in both of those cases I thought maybe this is a way to get around the problem of the lyrics because I think most of the Ellington songs were written as instrumental pieces and then someone added lyrics afterwards and a lot of them are just cheesy. So it started from there and then I graduated to people who would be able to make an interesting contribution and maybe not be obvious. Regina Carter was someone I wanted to work with for a long time because even though she's known to jazz musicians, she's actually very eclectic. But I also didn't want to go too far into the jazz world, hence people like Steve Vai. And Iggy was a relatively late idea actually. That was one of the later songs I worked on. I was going to sing it myself at first but instead I thought it would be interesting to have another voice on it. I had in mind a deeper voice and I just suddenly thought of him and I thought, "Shit, he'd probably do it." I'd met him a couple of times and he was a pretty cool guy. He likes to do different things.

How did he do when he got in there and started singing jazz? He struggled with it at first. He said, "This shit ain't for sissies." Whether it's really jazz or not I'm not really sure. I don't think it's a jazz record actually. I think it's a jazz fan's record.

Well it's certainly far from The Stooges. Yeah. He really enjoyed it and it was good fun. It you have an interesting idea and you approach someone about it, and it maybe gives them a chance to step out from what they normally do, usually they say yes.

There's not a lot of singing on the record - do you miss that, either in the studio or when playing live? Or do you just as much enjoy playing piano and focusing just on that? I'm just as happy not singing. It's hard! And I don't think I'm a great singer. I think I get away with it, mostly by doing my own stuff. I have my moments where I think I'm not bad but it's a real pleasure to have other voices in there as well. This album really is just as much a Joe Jackson album as the others I've done. The only thing I didn't do was write the tunes but I'm the arranger, the producer, the band leader, the keyboard player, the singer and so on and so on.

Some artists make a career by making the same album over and over again but that's never seemed to interest you. You've been called a musical chameleon. Is that an association you take pride in? Do you intentionally try to challenge yourself and your audience? I'm not very much of a planner in terms of the projects that I do. It's a very intuitive process and it's not calculated. It's from the heart and it comes out being quite eclectic because that's just the way I am. If I try to squeeze it into one very, very obvious genre that you could sum it up in a couple of words it would be much more contrived and phony. I think that's something that some people don't seem to understand. Anything that's good has some challenge to it, otherwise it's just bland.

Did you see yourself as a pop star at some point though, perhaps early in your career when you had a few hits? That whole idea is a bit ridiculous really [laughs]. I'm a musician who hopes to be able to make a living doing what I love and I've managed to do that so I think I've been very successful.

But there's a framework for that specific role, isn't there? I don't really know what to say about that. Record companies didn't put a gun to your head and tell you what to do.

Maybe not a gun but you hear plenty of stories from bands whose record company threatened to drop them or shelve a project because there weren't enough "hits." It's always your choice what to do. If you care about having a hit more than anything else and if you think that the record company is to be believed, than perhaps you'll start again.

Because your albums are downloaded in great volume these days, does it make you nostalgic for a time when you could really enjoy the artwork and the physicality of an LP, for example? I'm happy if anyone listens to it however they listen to it. But yeah, I must confess I missed LPs and now I miss CDs. I miss record stores, that's for sure. I'm in New York right now and there's none left except for small independent ones and little specialist ones and second-hand shops. But there's not good, big record stores that you can go in and browse. I do miss that. But I'm also aware that some of that is just down to the era of when I was born. People much younger than me really don't give a damn.

Do you still buy records? Yeah, I do.

What were the last things you bought, do you remember? Galactic's new album. Dr. John's new album. I like a lot of New Orleans music these days. I'm a big jazz fan so I'm always discovering new things. They may have been recorded in the '30s but they're new to me.

What kind of set are you playing on this current tour? We do most of the new record. There's a couple of tracks that don't really work with the live setup but most of it does. And yeah, we go pretty deep into my own catalog as well. It's a lot of music.

Do you remember the first time you played Seattle? I don't remember the first time. It's quite a long time ago. I remember quite a few of the gigs I've done over the years in Seattle and I like The Moore Theater especially, so I'm happy to be playing there. It's exactly the kind of place I like to play, a comfortable, funky old theater.

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