The Friday Morning Listen: Joe Jackson – The Duke (2012)

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There are only two kinds of music. Good music and the other kind.

There are several slight variations of this quote, attributed to Richard Strauss, Charles Mingus, Louis Armstrong, and others. I guess I don’t really care who first said it, because the idea is complete bullshit.

Yes, I know, we “critics” are supposed to have some magical powers of evaluation, our superior abilities able to discern the sublime from the sewage. That’s never worked for me. And though this might lead you to believe that this drops me down into the sea of musical moral relativism, the truth is both more complicated and more simple than that.

Recently, one of my SomethingElse! cohorts Kit O’Toole wrote a review of the latest Joe Jackson album The Duke. Her take on Jackson’s Ellington tribute is that it misses far more than it hits. I almost completely disagreed, the one point of overlap being that I do believe it’s a dangerous undertaking to revisit the catalog of such an icon.

Ms. O’Toole felt that Jackson’s sonic palette often drained the life out of Ellington’s compositions. For every “failure” — the Western feel of “Mood Indigo,” the electronic elements (and Iggy Pop just bein’ there) on “It Don’t Mean A Thing,” the rock leanings on “Perdido/Satin Doll” — I hear triumphs. But the fact that I don’t agree is far less interesting than this question: If there are supposedly only two kinds of music, doesn’t that mean that only one of us can be “right”?

One of the most fascinating things about music, and art in general, is that everybody brings something different to the experience. What I hear in this album is Joe Jackson doing what’s he’s always done: soaking in the essence of something and then extending it through his own eclectic past. There are definite traces of his previous work here, including the choppy funk guitar and menacing, stacatto strings on “Caravan,” the swirling, loungey mood of “Isfahan,” and the slow reggae strut that morphs into a sort of French folk music during “The Mooche/Black and Tan Fantasy.”

Unless it’s played very straight, any covers/tribute record can be accused of taking the music where it shouldn’t go, but that kind of move is part of the Joe Jackson playbook. On the Laughter and Lust tour, Jackson and his band delivered an amazing version of Fleetwood Mac classic “Oh Well.” It was chock full of bombast and explosive Latin percussion. It was breathtaking, with Jackson making the song his own without taking anything away from the original.

“Good” or “bad” music? The simple truth is that sometimes you just like something…or not. Where things get interesting is when you begin to investigate the “why” of the matter. Here we have two opinions in direct opposition. Is one right and one wrong? Maybe we’re just asking the wrong question.

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