Joe Jackson gained popularity in the late ’70s with his debut pop rock album, Look Sharp!, which featured the hit single “Is She Really Going Out With Him?”. Over the next 30+ years, Jackson has released a number of albums that define the phrase “eclectic mix.” From reggae to swing to Cole Porter tributes, Jackson’s music has refused to fit nicely into a genre. His new record is a tribute to big band legend Duke Ellington called The Duke. Unfortunately, Jackson has taken Ellington’s best work and tossed it into a fusion/muzak processor to produce a noodling, boring re-imagining.
The worst parts of The Duke are tracks like the elevator jazz opener “Isfahan” and the minimal dirge take on “Mood Indigo”. The former is originally a mournful, saxophone-centric piece that can break your heart. Jackson’s take is something you’d hear over the speakers at a café that’s trying a little too hard for ambiance. The drums pound out a shaker-filled tribal beat while synthesizers and an effects-laden guitar bounce around the melody with no horns in sight. “Mood Indigo” sees Jackson taking lead vocals over drudging cabaret strings and horns. His vocals have a slurred quality that match the laborious beat, and the whole thing makes you wish he would just get on with it already.
The version of jazz standard “It Don’t Mean a Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing)” jumps headlong into silly electronic mode with vocal samples and bopping synths. It starts with a short call-and-response scat portion between Jackson and guest vocalist Iggy Pop. Pop contributes a few verses, and in spite of his recent cabaret standards album, his speak-sing performance is somewhat anachronistic to the music.
The album has a couple highlights, including Sharon Jones’ vocals on “I Ain’t Got Nothin’ But the Blues/Do Nothin’ till You Hear From Me”. Jones’s voice is as beautiful as ever, and the music chugs nicely underneath. The other highlight here is the musicianship. There’s no discounting the talent of the folks playing the songs (including ?uestlove from The Roots), and there are some admirable moments throughout. Unfortunately, though, The Duke is too scattershot, and Jackson doesn’t quite know what genre to focus on. It’s a shame considering the dynamite source material.
Essential Tracks: “I Ain’t Got Nothin’ But the Blues/Do Nothin’ till You Hear From Me”