4:41 pm Jun. 26, 2012
The chorus to that song (which is all most people likely recall about the track) features Jackson singing in an Elvis Costello-ish affect, surfing a gigantic wave of power chords, but it's the rest of the song—the plodding, reggae-style syncopated guitar line, the call-and-response vocals, and a general aura of weirdness—that is really indicative of Jackson’s musical expansiveness.
Jackson spent the following 30 or so years continuing to explore different styles and genres. There was the era of smooth piano-pop, which yielded his two other major hits, 1982’s “Steppin’ Out” and "Breaking Us In Two"; the salsa tunes and torch songs at once bombastic and self-pitying (1984’s Body and Soul); the classical and soundtrack work (1983's Mike's Murder, 1987's Will Power, 1988's Tucker); the brooding mixture of opera and electronics (1994's Night Music, 1997's Heaven & Hell) long before last year’s divisive Lou Reed/Metallica effort Lulu; the proggy, jazzy foray into electronics, Symphony No. 1, for which he won a Grammy in 2001 for Best Pop Instrumental Album; and, along the way, a few obligatory returns to original form.
Jackson's latest, The Duke, is out this week, and it's only a return to form in the sense that Jackson has always been defined by his inexhaustible curiosity. The Duke finds him combining elements from nearly all of his musical phases, as well as recruiting some famous friends he's made along the way (among them Regina Carter, Christian McBride, and Ahmir 'Questlove’ Thompson), for an album that, while inconsistent on the whole, does manage to be intermittently transcendent.
The Duke is a record of defiantly non-standard versions of Duke Ellington songs, and its best moments come courtesy of the numerous guest stars. Most surprising, at least to a reviewer who doesn’t normally go in for guitar histrionics, are the forcefully melodic contributions of axeman Steve Vai. Vai is a guitar player’s guitar player (or perhaps a Guitar Player-magazine-subscriber’s guitar player), usually the very definition of self-indulgent noodling. On The Duke, however, Vai’s work is masterful. Lead track “Isfahan” sees Vai deploying a beautiful, conversational instrumentation, more than ably supported by Jackson’s keyboard playing. Later on, Vai dominates the instrumental medley “The Mooche–Black and Tan,” but far from being overbearing, his layered guitar tracks argue with each other in marvelous playfulness—one smooth and hopeful, the other nasty and peevish, twisting together like rope. It’s good stuff, especially on top of Jackson's confident arrangements.
Another great guest on the album (not anywhere near as surprisingly) is Sharon Jones, the recently rediscovered and now widely beloved vocal-soul virtuoso. Her song, another medley, “I Ain’t Got Nothin’ But the Blues/Do Nothin’ Till You Hear From Me,” is done in the traditional long-note, southern-accented blues style that’s attempted by many but successfully pulled off by a very few. It’s a way of singing that can sound hoary or false when the sounds are issuing from the wrong throat. As ever, Jones is nothing but spot on. “Caravan,” featuring the Iranian singer Sussan Deyhim, is another high point. Deyhim’s voice is haunting, and her translation of “Caravan”’s vocals into Farsi reclaims what was originally a bit of Arabian Nights-style orientalism, turning it into something new and magical.
Then, on the very last song, as if to remind listeners that this is an album of very non-standard standards, there’s Iggy Pop. His rendition, in tandem with Jackson, of “It Don’t Mean a Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing),” should be a triumphant cannon blast of an ending to the disc, but instead comes off like a damp squib. It would be one thing if the two aging punks were just having a bit of fun, but Pop doesn’t even seem to be enjoying himself, answering Jackson’s lines in a faux-theatrical growl—“It don’t mean a thing!” croons Jackson. “All right” says Pop, a mildly irrated question mark hovering at the edge of his inflection. When he finally does begin to sing, he sounds less like himself than the villain from The Nightmare Before Christmas.
On the tracks where he’s left to his own devices, Jackson tends to lean perhaps somewhat too heavily on synthesized funk and to focus on instrumentation at the expense of really doing something fresh and interesting with the source material. Still, material doesn't get much better than the songs of Duke Ellington, and The Duke is an interesting and occasionally rewarding exercise in canonical interpolation. Just keep the skip button on your remote easily accessible.
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- Jarvis Cocker returns to New York in familiar form tonight; in anticipation, a catalogue of his inter-Pulp larks