Joe Jackson’s career has been anything but predictable. After his first two albums, “Look Sharp” and “I’m the Man,” both released in 1979, placed him squarely in the camp of New Wave and drew unfair comparisons to Elvis Costello, Jackson has spent the ensuing three decades refusing to be pigeonholed.
“I’m conscious of trying to avoid cliche,” says Jackson, who will be the subject of a music column in this Friday’s upcoming Variety, “ but I’m not conscious of being a deliberate contrarian or anything like that. (My music is) very intuitive. I don’t have a plan. I don’t know what I’m going to be doing next year.”
If there’s a through-line to Jackson’s music, the connecting dots would consist of supreme song craft, a high level of musicianship and a restlessly shifting aesthetic. He’s dabbled in swing, jump blues, classical, music in the tradition of the Great American Songbook and soundtracks.
His new album, “The Duke,” out June 26 on the Razor & Tie label, stands as a tribute to one of Jackson’s musical heroes, Duke Ellington. The new recording recalls Jackson’s homage to the likes of Cab Calloway and Louis Jordan. But as can be expected, Jackson takes issue with the comparison.
“I think Ellington is a very different kind of figure than someone like Cab Calloway, for instance, even though they both played at the Cotton Club and had big bands,” says Jackson. “But there the similarity ends, really.”
In a departure from the bulk of his oeuvre, Jackson takes a backseat to many of his guest artists on “The Duke,” which includes Sharon Jones of the Dap Kings (which knocked the socks off the crowd at the Playboy Jazz Fest over the weekend), Iranian singer Sussan Deyhim, Brazilian vocalist Lilian Vieira and other cameos by the likes of guitarist Steve Vai and drummer Ahmir ?uestlove Thompson of The Roots.
Jackson also enlisted jazz stalwarts Christian McBride on bass and Regina Carter on violin, the latter of whom will join Jackson on his U.S. tour, which kicks off in Bethesda, Maryland on Sept. 15 and ends at L.A.’s downtown Orpheum Theatre on Oct. 6.
As usual with Jackson, expect to see the bulk of his show devoted to music from the new album. But judging from our phone conversation, he’ll also dip into his catalog with fresh arrangements that best utilize his touring lineup, which includes singer-songwriter-multi-instrumentalist Allison Cornell, whom Jackson refers to as “a very important voice on the album” and “capable of amazing things, vocally.”
“The Duke” incorporates an eclectic hybrid of styles, using a combination of acoustic and synthetic instruments and incorporating exotic strains on such tracks as “Perdido” and “Caravan.”
“I was just interested in using everything I possibly could except for horns,” explains Jackson. “And I wanted the record to not sound retro. I didn’t want to make it sound trendy, either. I wanted it to be kind of timeless. That was something I struggled with for a while — how electronic-sounding it was going to be, or how organic. And it ended up being a kind of mixture, which I’m pretty happy with.”
Like the album, Jackson views Ellington’s music as spanning multiple genres and periods. “Even though Ellington started his recording career in the 1920s, he was still going strong and still coming out with new stuff in the early 1970s — right up to his death in ’74,” says Jackson.
“There’s so many sides to it; it’s not just one thing,” he adds. “There’s a lot to explore. He was very original, very ahead of other people. There’s just a lot there to get your teeth into. Although I will say as I’ve gotten older and wiser I appreciate earlier jazz more. It took me more time to get earlier Ellington, for instance, than late Ellington.”
Jackson was also drawn to the more composed aspect of Ellington’s music as opposed to the spontaneity associated with modern jazz. “I’m very intrigued by the balance between structure and freedom,” he says, “or composition and improvisation. I think Ellington had a particularly brilliant way of doing that.”
In this age of Spotify and iTunes, where individual songs are traded back and forth like baseball cards and artists build recordings around one or two potential hit singles, Jackson remains steadfast in his commitment to albums as thematically unifying statements.
The ambitious 1986 live double album “Big World,” for example, took a sweeping view of global politics from a Western perspective and all the imperialistic consequences of the Reagan and Thatcher eras, while 1989’s “Blaze of Glory” chronicled the exploits of a mythical London rock star and the pitfalls of fame.
His criticism of the music business has surfaced in some of his music, especially the underrated 1991 LP “Laughter and Lust,” in which the tune “Hit Single” pokes fun at label execs obsessed with topping the charts and “The Old Songs” hints at an unhealthy nostalgia for a bygone era, false expectations and the refusal to embrace artistic change.
But the death of the album as a cohesive, conceptual statement is nothing new for Jackson, who moved to Berlin in 2008 to get away from the rat race of London and New York, his previous residences.
“People have been saying that for quite a while and I can see why they say it,” he says about albums as an endangered species. “I don’t necessarily agree. I mean people have been saying, for instance, that the novel is dead for God knows how long. And my opinion on that is if a novel is something you really feel you have in you, then that’s what you should do.
“I like the idea of an album having a unity to it… being a whole statement and not a bunch of things just thrown together. And I never really thought I was making concept albums but I was looking for ways to give the whole album some kind of identity and make the pieces fit together.
“It seems to suit the way my musical brain works and so I’m going to keep doing it. And if nobody wants it, tough shit, really (laughs). I can’t control the world and the music industry; I can’t un-invent the internet or anything like that.”