Joe Jackson's next project: A tribute to jazz giant Duke Ellington

Joe Jackson is promising a a decidedly unconventional salute to Ellington, hoping to highlight the timeless brilliance of his classic compositions even while showcasing Jackson’s own skills as an arranger, instrumentalist and vocal interpreter.

“I revere Duke Ellington,” Jackson says, “but I didn’t want this to be a reverent album.”

The Duke, his new tribute to the American jazz giant, is due June 26th on Razor & Tie. Jackson’s is just one of the featured voices. He sings “I’m Beginning To See The Light,” “Mood Indigo,” and “I Got It Bad (And That Ain’t Good),” while It Don’t Mean A Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing) finds him trading vocals with punk icon Iggy Pop. R&B diva Sharon Jones is featured on a soulful take on “I Ain’t Got Nothin’ But The Blues.” Instrumentals include “Isfahan,” “Rockin’ In Rhythm,” “The Mooche,” and “Black and Tan Fantasy.”

In all, 15 Ellington classics are touched upon over the course of 10 tracks, as Jackson intersperses melodic and rhythmic elements of various compositions in a manner that’s consistent with Ellington’s own freewheeling approach. Rather than emulating the songs’ original big-band settings, Jackson filters the material through his own musical imagination while exploring an assortment of unexpected grooves and textures. The resulting album is a seamless fusion of sounds and styles, whose abundant sense of playfulness is consistent with Ellington’s boundary-breaking attitude.

“Ellington didn’t consider his own arrangements to be sacred,” Jackson says. “He constantly reworked them, sometimes quite radically. So I think my approach is in the spirit of the man himself.”

Featured instrumentalists include violinist Regina Carter, bassist Christian McBride; rock guitar hero Steve Vai; drummer Ahmir ‘?uestlove’ Thompson and other members of The Roots; and two of Jackson’s old associates, guitarist Vinnie Zummo and percussionist Sue Hadjopoulos. The album was recorded and mixed by the legendary Elliot Scheiner (Steely Dan, Sting, Bob Dylan).

Here’s a look back at our recent thoughts on Joe Jackson and Duke Ellington. Click through the titles for complete reviews …

ONE TRACK MIND: JOE JACKSON TRIO, “SUNDAY PAPERS” (2011): Most of the time, good timing is a matter of being lucky instead of being good. For Joe Jackson’s very first album Look Sharp! (1979), he wrote and recorded a ditty “Sunday Papers,” blasting the British tabloid press with lethal doses of sarcasm. He and his Rain trio (Graham Maby, bass; Dave Houghton, drums) included this song in their rotation while touring last year, and it made it on the official document of that tour, Live Music: Europe 2010. But given the phone hacking scandal that broke out all over Britain right after Jackson’s record appeared in stores, the irony of Track #5 of this album is hard to miss.

DUKE ELLINGTON – LIVE AT THE WHITNEY (1995): Early on, you never heard much piano from Duke Ellington, a grievous thing.

It was only in the twilight of his career that this American jazz master regularly consented to taping some shows where his impish wit at the instrument could be heard front and center. Perhaps the best is this belated Impulse release — a Monday night show at the Whitney Museum of American Art in 1972, and one of the last trio records Duke ever made. Ellington is joined by Joe Benjamin at the bass, while Rufus Jones plays drums. But Duke, after being crowded out for so long by brilliant sidemen like Johnny Hodges, Paul Gonsalves and Clark Terry, is all that you’ll hear.

Included is an exciting mixture of the then-new and expected old favorites — featuring a darker, more complex “Sophisticated Lady/Solitude,” the simply rocking “C Jam Blues,” a richly moving “Mood Indigo” and an album-closing take on “Satin Doll.”

JOE JACKSON – LIVE: AFTRERLIFE (2004): This live reunion shows as documented here show just how well music from the various Jackson eras can hang together. A solo piano “Steppin’ Out” segues into a raucous “One More Time” and then into the Volume 4 tunes “Take It Like A Man” and “Awkward Age.” “Look Sharp” is followed by “Down To London” from the forgotten gem Blaze of Glory. Then the classic “Beat Crazy.” From there we go back to Look Sharp!’s “Fools In Love” (with a cool mid-song morph into the Yardbirds classic “For Your Love”) and then back to the present with newer songs “Love At First Light” and “Fairy Dust.”

DUKE ELLINGTON – THE GREAT LONDON CONCERTS (1963): Includes a number of the usual suspects over a sterling two-disc set — “Take the ‘A’ Train,” “Mood Indigo,” “Perdido” and “Don’t Get Around Much Anymore” among them — but also a probing look into his remarkable catalog. Many seldom-heard Ellington compositions are included, and a number of others are drastically reworked. Make special note of trumpeter Cootie Williams’ return, too. He had only recently retaken his chair, after a two-decades long run as a leader and as a sideman with Benny Goodman. His voice is somewhat autumnal (Williams was into his 50s at the time of these recordings) yet nevertheless inventive and true. Cootie’s head on “Caravan” pursued in this pleading fashion — a sharp contrast to the now-familiar charging intro during Ellington’s earlier definitive version — before Williams relaxes into an awfully cool swing.

JOE JACKSON – BODY AND SOUL (1984): What if a skinny-tie wearing late-1970s garage bandster — like, say, Joe Jackson — decided to transfer those same dark insights into the bracing, sophisticated context of a large-band jazz record? More than a few, if not every single damn one, would fail. But not Joe. With cover art in the familiar, almost sepia-toned style of Blue Note, and a session done with just two microphones, this Jackson album had the look of an instant classic. Or a disastrous failure. It lived up to the promise: From the towering horns of “The Verdict,” sparked by a contemporary film starring Paul Newman, to the smaller insights on good-love-gone-bad in “Not Here, Not Now,” this 1984 masterpiece stands as a soul-searching counterpoint to the angry-young joys of Jackson’s signature debut from half a decade before, Look Sharp.

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