Written by NPR Staff from National Public Radio
As the 1970s punk scene was turning the corner into a new decade, Joe Jackson showed them the way with a pair of essential new wave albums, Look Sharp! and I’m the Man.
But as soon as fans thought they knew the angry young Brit with the sharp suits and even sharper commentary, Jackson changed. His Gershwin-esque piano music became huge hits in the ’80s, but then he changed again.
Over and over, throughout his career, Jackson has taken on any musical challenge, from the symphony to swing. Now, on his latest album The Duke, he’s paying tribute to a fellow musical pioneer: Duke Ellington.
The album, however, is not meant as a faithful, note-for-note re-creation. As a matter of fact, in honoring the music of one of the greatest big-band composers of all time, Jackson has chosen to use almost no horns. Jackson spoke with Guy Raz, host of weekends on All Things Considered, about the album, and some of the choices he made with the music.
On the lack of horns on The Duke
“That was the first real decision I made when I started to think that this could be an album. I think sometimes you have to give yourself rules or limitations. Because I think you’re trying to create an identity for a project and sometimes you have to do that by what you don’t do as much as you do. I just thought right away, as soon as I start using clarinets and saxophones and trumpets and trombones, it’s going to start sounding like Ellington but not as good. So there’s not much point to that.”
On collaborating with Iggy Pop
“I met him a couple of times, and I think he’s a pretty cool guy. He likes to do different things. I think that’s true of all of the guests on this record. When you actually ask someone to get involved in something that’s a little different or that’s interesting, usually they say yes. The hard part is just logistics because he was on tour at the time. He liked the idea of doing it, and he had a good time doing it. I think he found it challenging at first … but I think it turned out really well.”
On translating some of the lyrics on The Duke into Farsi and Portuguese
“The one thing that I’ve always had a problem with with Ellington is a lot of the lyrics are just awful. He wrote some lyrics, they weren’t particularly good. I think he didn’t care much about lyrics and most of his songs were written as instrumental pieces and then someone put lyrics to them afterwards.
“‘Caravan,’ which has this really interesting, strange [and] exotic melody, when you actually sing it, the words are so cheesy that it spoils it for me. I had this idea that maybe it would be cool to have a couple of these songs sung in different languages, at least it would give a different slant to it. To me it restores an exotic sort of element to the song.”
On being a professionally trained musician
“When the punk scene happened in London in the late ’70s, I was way over qualified already to be part of it. It never occurred to me that I was going to be too good a musician. I wanted to be as good as I can be. I was going to see bands who barely knew how to tune their instruments, let alone play them, and I thought it was great fun. I’ve never been a snob about any kind of music; I just thought it was exciting, and it was fun, and it was what it was. But at the same time, I think, in pop and rock music, there’s always been a lot of inverted snobbery. If you are a real musician, that’s somehow sort of suspect.”