There are tributes and there are tributes, and imitation may be the sincerest form of flattery, but paying an artist the compliment of using his work as a foundation to build upon may be the best kind of flattery. And this best kind of flattery is exactly what alternative rocker Joe Jackson has done for the music of Duke Ellington in his new album The Duke, set for release June 26 from Razor & Tie. Imitation is far from Jackson’s mind. He takes the music and in a real sense makes it his own. “Ellington didn’t consider his own arrangements to be sacred”, Jackson says in the album’s press release, “He constantly reworked them, sometimes quite radically. So I think my approach is in the spirit of the man himself.”
Jackson has collected an eclectic crew to join him in the project, from punk favorite Iggy Pop and Iranian songstress Sussan Deyhim to Zuco 103 Brazilian vocalist Lilian Vieira and soulful blues artist Sharon Jones. Then there are the musicians—jazz stalwarts violinist Regina Carter and bassist Christian McBride, rock guitarist Steve Vai, and Roots drummer Ahmir ‘?uestlove’ Thompson. Older Jackson collaborators include Vinnie Zummo on guitar and percussionist Sue Hadjopoulos. With this kind of musical cast working on different tracks, the one thing you can expect is variety, and variety is what you get.
Jackson takes 15 Ellington classics and, combining some into unique medleys (not to mention adding some quotations from other pieces), arranges them into 10 highly original tracks. He is clearly having himself a good time, just listen to the quotation at the end of “The Mooche/Black and Tan Fantasy” or the drum and bass coda at the end of “It Don’t Mean a Thing.” In the middle of Vieira’s hot and sexy romp through “Perdido” he inserts a time bending “Satin Doll” piano solo. This is Ellington’s music, but there is no escaping Jackson’s aesthetic touch.
Take the classic “Caravan,” during which he manages to create a big sound without any of the trademark Ellington horns. “I wanted to take it in a completely different direction, and there was a danger of just sounding like watered-down Ellington if it wasn’t different enough,” Jackson explains in the press release, “Not using horns was a good place to start. It makes you think: what else can we do?”
Instead you get a Farsi vocal from Deyhim and some exciting ensemble work from Jackson and the band. It may well make me forget what had been my ex-favorite cover from Benny Goodman and the orchestra. He gets a big textured sound on most of the instrumentals, the opening track, “Isfahan” and “The Mooche/Black and Tan Fantasy.” “Rockin’ In Rhythm,” on the other hand, is a bubbly bauble. And not a horn to be found.
“Mood Indigo” is a boozy vocal for Jackson worthy of Tom Waits, indeed the whole bit has that drunken vibe, even the violin highlights. Jackson also does the vocal on “I Got It Bad (And That Ain’t Good),” usually a vehicle for a female singer for what it’s worth, and “I’m Beginning to See the Light.” Iggy Pop joins him on “It Don’t Mean a Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing).” Sharon Jones does a number on “I Ain’t Got Nothin’ But the Blues” and Jackson adds some nice solo work with “Do Nothin’ Til You Hear From Me” as part of the medley.
Jackson’s transformations of classic Ellington may not please everyone. Some of the originals and even earlier covers have become so much a part of the culture, it will be hard for many to listen to what he has done without hearing echoes from the past. It is not easy to overcome the bias of familiarity. On the other hand we all know what familiarity breeds. Besides the more you listen, the more respect you have for Jackson and his musical ideas. The Duke is nothing if not a fitting tribute from one musical genius to another.