Music Interviews
3:43 pm
Sun September 16, 2012

Joe Jackson Pays Tribute To 'The Duke'

Originally published on Mon September 17, 2012 8:50 am

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.


Interview Highlights

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."

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

GUY RAZ, HOST:

And if you're just tuning in, this is WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Guy Raz. And it's time now for music.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I'M THE MAN")

RAZ: Just as the punk scene started to turn a corner in the late 1970s, a young and exciting British musician was starting to get noticed for a sound that would soon be called new wave. And his name was Joe Jackson.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I'M THE MAN")

JOE JACKSON: (Singing) Pretty soon now, you know I gotta make a comeback.

RAZ: Joe Jackson seemed the perfect bridge from punk to new wave. He was angry but also musically talented. He wore sharp suits, but his words were often biting, even political. And just as suddenly, Joe Jackson changed course.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "STEPPING OUT")

JACKSON: (Singing) Me babe stepping out.

RAZ: His big piano heavy songs became huge hits in the 1980s, and then he changed again.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "YOU CAN'T GET WHAT YOU WANT")

JACKSON: (Singing) You can't what you want until you know what you want.

RAZ: Over and over throughout his career, Joe Jackson has taken on any musical challenge from symphonies to swing. And now, he's paying tribute to a fellow musical pioneer, Duke Ellington.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I GOT IT BAD AND THAT AIN'T GOOD")

JACKSON: (Singing) But when the weekend's over and Monday rolls around, I end up like I start out just crying my heart out.

RAZ: This is from Joe Jackson's latest album, "The Duke." And as you can tell, it's not meant as a faithful note for note recreation of Duke Ellington. As a matter of fact, in honoring the music of one of the greatest big band composers of all time, Joe Jackson decided to all but abandon horns.

JACKSON: 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 the project. And sometimes you have to do that by what you don't do as much as what you do.

And I just thought right away, well, 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.

RAZ: You wanted to avoid imitating him or competing with the master.

JACKSON: Yeah.

RAZ: And...

JACKSON: Or, you know, the many other people who've done their versions of Ellington. To me, they never seem to go far enough away from what Ellington did.

RAZ: You have made a pretty big and bold choice for your duet partner on this song, "It Don't Mean a Thing if it Ain't Got that Swing."

JACKSON: Oh, yeah.

RAZ: It is Iggy Pop.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "IT DON'T MEAN A THING IF IT AIN'T GOT THAT SWING")

IGGY POP: (Singing) What good is melody, what good is music if it ain't possessing something sweet? It ain't the melody. It ain't the music. It's something else that makes the tune compete.

RAZ: I mean, it wasn't that long ago that he was rolling around onstage in broken glass and peanut butter.

JACKSON: Yeah.

RAZ: Now, he's swinging to Duke Ellington. How did that collaboration come about?

JACKSON: Well, I met him a couple of times. And I think he's a pretty cool guy, and he likes to do different things. I think he found it challenging, at first. What was it he said? This (bleeped) ain't for sissies, something of this kind.

(LAUGHTER)

JACKSON: But I think it turned out really well.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "IT DON'T MEAN A THING IF IT AIN'T GOT THAT SWING")

JOE JACKSON AND IGGY POP: (Singing) It don't mean a thing if it ain't got that swing. Do-wap-do-wap-do wap-do-wap-do-wap-do-wap-do-wap-do wap. Ow.

RAZ: You've made another interesting choice on this record. The song "Caravan" features an Iranian singer who has translated the lyrics into Farsi.

JACKSON: Yeah.

RAZ: There's another song, "Peridido," it's now in Portuguese.

JACKSON: That's right. Yeah.

RAZ: Why?

JACKSON: The one thing that I've always had a problem with with Ellington is a lot of the lyrics are just awful.

(LAUGHTER)

JACKSON: I mean, because I think that 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. And then sometimes, I'm inclined to believe it was the guy who just, you know, delivered the pizza or something that added the lyrics, you know?

Anyone here who can write lyrics? OK, now you're a lyricist. And those two songs were - they were both songs that I really wanted to do, especially "Caravan," which has this really interesting, strange, exotic melody, but when you actually sing it, the words are so cheesy that it spoils it for me.

And I had this idea that, well, maybe it would be cool to have a couple of these songs sung in a different language. I mean, at least it would give a different slant to it.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CARAVAN")

SUSSAN DEYHIM: (Singing in foreign language)

JACKSON: I can't vouch for how good her translation is. I mean, I don't speak Farsi. But...

RAZ: You just got to trust her.

JACKSON: Yeah. I trust her. And, I mean, to me, it restores an exotic sort of element to the song.

RAZ: I'm speaking with Joe Jackson. His latest record is called "The Duke," and it features music either written by or associated with Duke Ellington. People who are fans of yours and people who know your story know that you were very, very gifted as a kid and your gift was recognized. Your parents and others knew that, and you got this grant by the council to go and study.

JACKSON: Yeah. Yeah.

RAZ: How much do you think the trajectory of your career has to do with the fact that you were trained, that you were professionally trained? I mean, a lot of musicians today don't go to the Royal Academy or to the Berklee College of Music here in the U.S. They sort of have a band, and they get popular, and that's it. They go make music.

JACKSON: That's true. I mean, I - when the punk scene happened in London in the late '70s, I was way overqualified already to be part of it. It never occurred to me that I was going to be too good a musician.

(LAUGHTER)

JACKSON: You know, I wanted to be as good as I could 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.

RAZ: Yeah.

JACKSON: You know, I mean, 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 in a way, you know? Like, if you are a real musician, that's somehow sort of suspect. You know, it's much cooler to be someone who can just play three chords and look good.

RAZ: Did you feel that? Were you ever on the receiving end of that snobbery?

JACKSON: Yeah, I felt it from time to time. I mean, I think it is definitely something that exists. I think it's a myth that snobbery is something that exists in the refined world of classical music, for instance. I think some of the least snobbish and coolest musicians I've ever worked with have been the classical guys, because they - you know, they just care about the music, really.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

RAZ: When you perform live, what do you make of the people who come see you? Is it sort of a mixture of, you know, fans of this kind of music and also the fans who want to hear "Stepping Out," "Is She Really Going Out With Him?"

JACKSON: People always want to hear familiar songs, and I understand that. And, you know, we generally play them, you know, because I enjoy it too. So there's no problem, really, there. But as far as who the audience is for this tour, as far as I can tell, it's a pretty diverse bunch. And that's all right with me.

I'm just happy every time one person buys a ticket to the show. I mean, every time one person buys a record, I'm happy. I mean, I think you can't really have any expectations at all. I think that's a big mistake.

RAZ: I mean, if you read between the lines, it sounds like you're saying you're fortunate that you've been able to make a living in this profession (unintelligible).

JACKSON: Oh, God, yes. I mean, I never - I knew I was going to be a musician by the time I was 14 or 15 years old. And I was equally convinced that I was going to be looking at a life of poverty and obscurity but hopefully having fun doing what I loved. So the fact that I've done quite well and, you know, still doing this, to me, that's a great success.

RAZ: That's Joe Jackson. His latest record is a tribute to the music of Duke Ellington. It's called "The Duke." You can hear a few tracks at our website, nprmusic.org. Joe Jackson, thank you so much for coming in.

JACKSON: Thank you.

RAZ: Congratulations on your record.

JACKSON: Thanks a lot.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BEGINNING TO SEE THE LIGHT")

RAZ: And for Sunday, that's WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Guy Raz. Check out our weekly podcasts. Go to npr.org/weekendatc or to the NPR smartphone app. Click on programs and look for WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. We're back on the radio next weekend. Until then, thanks for listening and have a great week.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BEGINNING TO SEE THE LIGHT")

JACKSON: (Singing) But now that your lips are burning mine, I'm beginning to see the light. I'm beginning to. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.