For decades, Joe Jackson has recorded classy homages to masters of jazz, swing, and the Great American Songbook. For example, his 1981 Jumpin’ Jive release was built on Jackson’s interpretations of songs from Cab Calloway, Lester Young, Glenn Miller, and Louis Jordan. In 1982, his Night and Day album paid tribute to the words and music of Cole Porter.
Now, 2012’s The Duke is Jackson re-imagining 15 compositions associated with Edward Kennedy “Duke” Ellington. This time around, what Jackson has created may not be innovative, but it is certainly a worthy addition to the cannons of both Ellington and Jackson, two gentlemen who led their bands sitting at their keyboards/pianos. At its core, the album showcases just how savvy Jackson is as an arranger and bandleader and how well he could bring to life the essence of an American giant.
While Jackson provides occasional vocals and his keyboard work shines throughout the 10 tracks (several of which are medleys), the players and singers Jackson assembled provide more than a swinging foundation for the proceedings. To begin, there’s the distinctive, searing guitar leads of Steve Vai. Then, there’s the jazz virtuosity of violinist Regina Carter and bassist Christian McBride. Drummer Ahmir Thompson and percussionist Sue Hadjopoulos drive, in particular, the two opening numbers. They are the instrumental “Isfahan” and “Caravan,” featuring the ethereal, transcendent vocals of Iranian Sussan Deyhim, who sings the lyrics in Farsi.
In the same spirit, Lilian Vieira, of the Brazilian/Dutch collective Zuco 103, sings a Portuguese version of “Perdido/Satin Doll.” (The original “Caravan” and “Perdido” are credited with being the tunes that introduced a Spanish flair to big band music—only two examples of Ellington’s own long-standing interest in international musical forms.)
The varied musical settings and very tight performances include other instrumentals like “Rockin’ in Rhythm” and “The Mooche/Black and Tan Fantasy,” featuring electronic musician Kris Ingram Lanzaro and the string quartet, Ethel. (“Black and Tan” was the title of a 1929 short film in which the Duke played himself.) “I Ain’t Got Nothin’ But The Blues/Do Nothin’ Till You Hear From Me” gets an R&B treatment from singer Sharon Jones who, in a sense, represents Ellington’s latter period when he incorporated more Gospel themes in his work.
Jackson multi-tracks his own voice to create the vocal harmonies over McBride’s throbbing bass line for “I’m Beginning to See the Light/Take the ‘A’ Train/Cotton Tail.” We also hear Jackson singing old-style on “Mood Indigo,” “I Got It Bad (And That Ain’t Good),” and “It Don’t Mean A Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing),” where Jackson swaps lines with, of all people, Iggy Pop.
Recorded and mixed by Elliot Scheiner (Steely Dan, Sting, Bob Dylan), the program appropriately has a slick, polished, sophisticated feel from first to last. Jackson didn’t simply take the Duke’s melodies and try to modernize their possibilities. He made every attempt to capture the spirit of Ellington’s lively style, his range and diversity, as well as the Duke’s ability to match performers with material.
As Ellington participated in over 1,000 compositions for over 50 years, bridging jazz, blues, classical, and film scores, perhaps Jackson might consider a second volume. I can think of no one better to make us swing and make it mean something all over again. The Duke is tasty, impressive, and a more than welcome link in the musical legacy of a man who contributed more than his share of American standards.