By Emily J Weitz
Joe Jackson made a name for himself in the late 70s and early 80s in the pop/rock scene, and his biggest hit, “Is She Really Going Out with Him” has one of those choruses that just won’t get out of your head. But his work has spanned the genres, and when he comes to Westhampton Beach Performing Arts Center this weekend, it will be in the midst of a tour promoting his newest album The Duke, a tribute to jazz legend Duke Ellington.
The Duke features 15 tracks, all composed by Duke Ellington. Jackson collaborates with a wide spectrum of artists from punk icon Iggy Pop to R&B powerhouse Sharon Jones, from The Roots’ drummer QuestLove to jazz violinist Regina Carter. While most of Jackson’s other albums consisted primarily of original work, he felt it was time to honor one of his greatest influences.
“This is a project that has probably been in the works for many years,” Jackson said in an interview last week. “I’ve long been a fan of Ellington and I really wanted to do what no one else has seemed to do: take the compositions in directions that they haven’t been taken before.”
Jackson believes this is crucial when musicians navigate the tricky waters of covering other musicians.
“I think doing a cover is only interesting if you’re going to bring something different to it,” he said. “Put your own stamp on it. I don’t see the point of singing or performing a song exactly as it was recorded by someone else. That’s why although “The Duke” is a collection of compositions by Ellington and others, it’s still very much a Joe Jackson record.”
You can hear Ellington’s influence in some of Jackson’s work, but he says that even in his more contemporary or poppy sounding pieces, the influence is there. That’s because it’s not just in the sound or the style.
“I think it’s really the spirit in which he worked,” said Jackson. “His sense of musical adventure and his reluctance to put music in different categories. To him there were only two kinds of music: good and bad.”
The other aspect of The Duke’ spirit that is invoked with this new tribute is his playfulness and creativity.
“I think the album is really in the spirit of the Duke himself, who was constantly rearranging and reworking his own compositions.”
One striking choice that Jackson made was to leave the horn section out of the equation entirely. For some purists, Duke Ellington without the horns is hard to imagine. But Jackson was confident that it was the right choice for the sound he wanted.
“That was the first real decision I made when I started to think that this could be an album,” he said in an interview with NPR last week. “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.”
He wasn’t attempting to recreate Ellington; he was attempting to re-imagine him.
“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.”
Instead, he maximized the talented people he was working with, like Regina Carter on violin.
“All the musicians were fantastic to work with,” he said, “and I never imagined I would have the opportunity to work with so many. Everyone was really into the project and they were all very well prepared and enthusiastic. The most difficult part was really coordinating the very busy schedules of all these very much in demand musicians! And we are very lucky to have Regina Carter who plays on the album, also be part of the touring band.”
Other members of the 6-piece touring band include percussionist Sue Hadjopoulos, vocalist and multi-instrumentalist Allison Cornell, bassist and tuba player Jesse Murphy, guitarist Adam Rogers and drummer Nate Smith.
“The show will be a mix of Ellington songs from ‘The Duke’ and quite a lot of my own catalogue,” says Jackson. “Working with a bigger band gives me a lot more options and I’ll be taking full advantage of that.”