Getty Images After reportedly suffering a stroke last week, more information…
- Posted on Jun 30th 2012 1:00PM by Dave Steinfeld
In the three decades since then, Jackson has alternated between rock and roll and other genres -– not only swing but also jazz and classical. He recently called Spinner from Germany, where he now makes his home, to discuss his new album, The Duke. Released earlier this week, the LP is a collection of Duke Ellington covers, only the second time in his career that Jackson has recorded an album of songs he didn't write himself. He is joined by an eclectic list of collaborators on the album, to say the least. Iggy Pop contributes vocals to "It Don't Mean a Thing (If It Ain't Got That Swing)" while Ahmir "?uestlove" Thompson drums on "Rockin' in Rhythm." Other guests include jazz violinist Regina Carter, rock guitar god Steve Vai and Euro-Latin trio Zuco 103.
Though Jackson has sometimes had a reputation for being reclusive or snobby, nothing could be further from the truth. In conversation, he is often self-deprecating, open and quick to credit others. And his admiration for Ellington goes beyond the music. "When he was starting out [in] the late 1920s, he was a young, very talented black man in a racist society," says Jackson. "And the way he handled that was with complete and utter dignity. I find Ellington a very inspiring figure even though I'm a white guy from England."
When did you first hear Duke Ellington's music?
I must have been around 15 or 16 years old. I don't remember what the first [song] that I heard was but I was certainly aware of Ellington at that point because that was when I got interested in jazz. Later on, I studied it a bit more. You know, when I was a music student, 18, 19, I got more interested, especially in Ellington's later music. So I've been an Ellington fan for a long time.
In the liner notes, you say that you've been wanting to do this album for awhile. Tell me a little bit about getting the various collaborators together and actually recording it.
Even though I didn't actually write the tunes, I still had to make it my own album. The process was very much the same. You start getting ideas and one thing leads to another and you experiment. In this case, it was in terms of arranging rather than composing. And also playing and singing and bandleading and producing. [Laughs] I mean, I wear quite a lot of hats! And on this record, I wear all of them except one in a way. But then it brings the other ones to the fore.
But I found that over the last few years, I kept thinking more and more about Ellington tunes. [They] would just come into my mind in all kinds of different times and places. I remember one occasion. We played a couple of years ago in South Africa for the first time. And I remember walking down a street in Capetown and hearing a really interesting rhythm coming out of a doorway. [After that], I immediately heard an Ellington tune going with this rhythm and thinking, "Wow, that's interesting." You know, once your mind becomes open to these kind of possibilities, the project kind of takes on a life of its own.
It's surprising that you didn't use horns on the album.
The idea was, on the one hand, to not compete with Ellington at what he did so brilliantly. And the other thing was it was a way of taking it further away from the originals, which was the whole point. I mean, a lot of people have covered Ellington songs but I always felt they didn't go far enough, and wanted to take it a lot further than had been done before. No horns was one of the ways to do that.
You had quite an eclectic list of collaborators. I was shocked to see Iggy Pop's name.
That's what makes it fun! When I had the idea to use him, I was really just playing around with the arrangement and trying different keys for my voice, including singing lower than I normally do. Then I just suddenly heard Iggy's voice in my mind. I thought, "Well, if it's gonna be a deeper voice, maybe it should be someone who really has a deeper voice." I just had this idea of Iggy and it made me laugh because I thought, "Jesus, no one's gonna expect that." So he liked the idea and he actually had a lot of fun doing it. I think it worked very well.
You re-convened the original Joe Jackson Band in 2003 for the album Volume 4 and then you went on tour. What do you get from those three guys that's special?
Well, I've been working with Graham and Dave since then, doing a lot of touring as a trio. Although we haven't done so much in the States; it's been mostly in Europe. So we've done a lot of work together.
That original band is over and done. I mean, it really was [done] in 1980, actually! But I really liked the idea of putting it back together to do one last really good album. I don't think that Beat Crazy, the third album, was all that great in retrospect. I think it was a bit confused. But going forward was very satisfying in that instance. It was kind of like finishing the unfinished story. And I think by far [that Volume 4] was by far the strongest album we did as a band.
Are you going to be touring behind [the new] album? And if so, in what configuration?
We're touring the States in September, October. The band is a seven-piece band, including Regina Carter on violin. So that's exciting. We're going to be doing a mixture of Ellington and my songs as well.
I'd like to ask you about a couple of songs from various points in your career. One is the song "Home Town."
That was a deliberate exercise in nostalgia, which was kind of a challenge because I don't think I'm a very nostalgic person. I wondered if it would be possible to write a song about my home town that would be nostalgic without being cheesy. So I think it was that idea married to a particular chord sequence that comes from a classical piece by Pachelbel. That piece of music had a pleasant, nostalgic flavor in my mind.
How about "The Band Wore Blue Shirts"?
Oh God! That was about my experience playing at the Playboy Club, backing cabaret singers. I was about 22 years old and trying to save up money to make my own demos. And we did actually wear blue shirts at one point!
What about "Steppin' Out?" Did anything specific inspire that?
It was a kind of romantic idea of New York at night. The glittering lights and all that. That album, Night and Day, is not really a rock 'n' roll album at all. And my feeling, when I started to spend a lot of time in New York, was that it wasn't really a rock 'n' roll town. It was more about jazz and Latin music than it was about rock. That's one of the reasons that album has no guitars on it. I just tried to paint a picture of this romantic idea of New York night life, with a disco beat.
It was a romantic period of time, too.
Yeah, I really loved that time in New York. I miss it, actually. I really don't wanna be one of these guys that, as he gets older, just goes on about how things were better 30 years ago, you know? But I can't help it. I was there -- and it was better!