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Joe Jackson Pays Tribute To Duke Ellington

Singer/pianist reworks several of the big band leader's classics on 'The Duke'

March 31, 2012 2:30 PM ET
joe jackson
Joe Jackson performs at the North Sea Jazz Festival held at the Ahoy in Rotterdam, Netherlands.
Peter Van Breukelen/Redferns

He may be best known for such pop hits as "Is She Really Going Out with Him?" and "Steppin' Out," but Joe Jackson holds a deep admiration for legendary big band leader/songwriter/pianist Duke Ellington. And on his upcoming release, The Duke (due out June 26th via Razor & Tie), Jackson reworks an album's worth of Ellington classics.

"I think it probably snuck up on me, after many years of being an Ellington fan," Jackson tells Rolling Stone. "Going back to my teenage years, really. For the last few years, I've found myself playing with different arrangements of Ellington tunes – either in my head or in my band. And we've done a couple of Ellington covers with my trio I've been working with the last few years. But I wanted to take it a lot further than that. Really explore a lot of different approaches to this music, which I think is so strong and so classic that it could take it. I was also inspired by Ellington's own philosophy, which he thought the same way about his music – he constantly rearranged and reinvented his own compositions. Sometimes in quite radical ways."

And one radical way that Jackson reworked the tunes was by eliminating an instrument that was a major element in many Ellington compositions. "No horns. That was a rule I made fairly early on, because the last thing I wanted to do was do something that just sounded like watered down Ellington. There's just no point. Quite a few jazz people have done Ellington tribute records, and some of them are very good, but they tend to sound like second-hand Ellington." Filling in for the horn parts are a wide variety of instruments, Jackson says, "everything from accordion to harmonica to Stylophone to a string quartet."

Produced by Jackson and recorded and mixed by Elliot Scheiner, The Duke features both instrumentals ("Isfahan," "Rockin’ in Rhythm") and tunes with vocals ("Mood Indigo," a medley of "I'm Beginning to See the Light" and "Take the A Train"). Featuring a wide variety of guest musicians (Steve Vai and ?uestlove, among others), one of the more intriguing tracks is an album-closing rendition of "It Don't Mean A Thing (If You Ain't Got That Swing)" as a duet between Jackson and punk rock godfather Iggy Pop.

"We met once when we were both staying in the same hotel on tour, and we had a couple of beers," Jackson says. "I found him to be a very interesting and quite charming guy. And a very smart guy – more open-minded than I think people realize. I heard his voice in my mind singing that song. And I thought, 'I wonder if he'd like to do it?' And he did!"

Jackson is already plotting a tour in support of The Duke. "We're going to be touring in September and I'm putting the band together now," he says. But just don't compare the album to his earlier swing-themed album, 1981's Jumpin' Jive.

"I don't think it's anything like Jumpin' Jive. It's totally different," he says. "I think it's more like Night and Day or other things I've done, like Heaven & Hell."

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