Joe Jackson has always experienced a thorny relationship with convention, zigging left when fans and critics expect him to zag right. Since bursting on the scene in 1979 with “Look Sharp” and its hit single “Is She Really Going Out with Him?” he has delved into swing, classical, soundtracks and performed chamber-group variations on his repertoire.
Despite this musical restlessness, it’s one of pop’s great mysteries that Jackson has receded so deeply into the commercial ether. He hasn’t produced a top 10 hit in the U.S. since 1982’s “Steppin’ Out” from “Night and Day,” despite dozens of single-worthy tracks on such albums as “Body and Soul” (1984), “Big World” (1986), “Blaze of Glory” (1989), and “Rain” (2008). He’s sold a mere 1.2 million albums since 1991, when Nielsen SoundScan began tracking sales data.
His latest effort, “The Duke,” a tribute album to Duke Ellington, is being released Tuesday on Razor & Tie.
When asked if there’s some sort of contrarian gene in his makeup that causes him to defy expectations at every turn, Jackson, speaking to Variety from Berlin, laughs off the notion.
“I don’t know, honestly,” he explains. “I’m just doing the only thing I know how to do, which is to follow my own instincts and do stuff that is exciting to me. You (can’t) start out trying to figure what people are going to like. That’s an ass-backwards way of trying to create anything.”
With “The Duke,” Jackson revisits jazz greats like Louis Jordan and Cab Calloway that were the subject of 1981’s “Jumpin’ Jive.” This is not exactly your dad’s jazz — more like your granddad’s, even though Jackson professes a preference for the hard bop of late ’50s/early ’60s.
“‘Jumpin’ Jive’ was something I did as a one-off,” he explains, “kind of a little vacation from my own music just for the hell of it. It was never meant to be taken very seriously. I’d been very sick for a while and listening to Louis Jordan made me feel better.
“Ellington is a different kettle of fish. (His) music is like a whole world that you could spend a lifetime exploring. So I don’t really think of him as coming from the early days of jazz. Just the same as you really can’t define his music as big band swing, he was there before the swing era started and he was still there long after it as well.”
In a way, Jackson cedes his leadership role on the album to such guest stars as Sharon Jones, who handles vocals on “I Ain’t Got Nothin’ But the Blues”; Sussan Deyhim, who sings on “Caravan” in Farsi; and Lilian Vieira of the Brazilian/Dutch combo Zuco, who delivers a samba-like “Perdido” in Portuguese. Other guest artists include Christian McBride on bass and violinist Regina Carter, the latter of whom will join Jackson on a U.S. tour that hits New York’s Town Hall Sept. 21-22 and L.A.’s Orpheum Theater on Oct. 6.
“I wanted it to be multicolored,” he says, “to kind of keep shifting the spotlight around between different instruments and voices, which is very much what Ellington did, actually.”