October 8, 2015
Joe Jackson has led a double (or maybe triple) life for most of his lengthy career. He hit the scene in 1979 with his debut album Look Sharp!
(A&M 1979) rolling into the U.S. from England as part of the "New Wave," a new (at that time) genre reacting to the perceived increasingly bombastic and ponderous tendencies of "Progressive Rock" at the time. "New Wave" stripped down the sound and simplified the melodies and arrangements. "Punk Rock" was also coming to the fore at the time, but New Wave typically seemed more melodic and not quite as snarly. Jackson scored a couple of hits with that first album, "Is She Really Going Out with Him?" which had more of a bouncy pop feel than most of the rest of the album and "Sunday Papers" with a reggae sound which was making its way into New Wave hits at the time (i.e. The Police). Most of the rest of the album had a harder edge to it, being driven primarily by guitar; Jackson's piano, which would later be a hallmark of his sound, generally absent. Look Sharp!
was followed by two more albums of a similar stripe, I'm the Man
(A&M 1979) and Beat Crazy
(A&M 1980). Then, like a bolt from a clear blue sky, Joe Jackson's Jumpin' Jive
(A&M 1981) arrived. The album consisted entirely of Louis Jordan
inspired mid-Twentieth Century Rhythm and Blues; jumpin' jive, indeed. For a business that consistently and strictly pigeon-holed its product (the musicians), the Jumpin' Jive
album was truly remarkable. The fact that it was a heck of a lot of fun was a bonus. Night and Day
(A&M 1982) was next and was yet another major surprise. While the album marked a return to a more contemporary sound, it was still strikingly different from his first three albums. The jazz influence was unmistakable, from the title of the album, borrowed from Cole Porter
, to the cover with a caricature of Jackson sitting at a grand piano writing music with the Manhattan skyline in the background to the absence of guitars throughout the album to Latin and jazz-influenced rhythms. The album established Jackson as a serious and sophisticated artist, albeit within a rock-pop context. It was a big commercial success, producing hits including "Steppin' Out" and "Breaking Us In Two."
The jazz influences continued, although often more cosmetic than substantive. For example, the cover of Jackson's album Body and Soul
(A&M 1984) (another reference to a jazz standard), mimicked an earlier Sonny Rollins
The jazz influences continued including a contribution ("'Round Midnight") to a Thelonious Monk
tribute album, That's the Way I Feel Now
(A&M, 1986). The following year, he released Will Power
(A&M, 1987), an instrumental album with a full-blown orchestra (featuring Marin Alsop in the middle of the violin section). Neither rock nor pop; jazz nor R&B, Will Power
marked yet another musical detour, this time into Twentieth Century classical music. He returned to that style with Heaven and Hell
(Sony, 1997) and, to some degree, Symphony No. 1
(Sony, 1999) (featuring both Terence Blanchard
and Steve Vai
). Most recently, jazz-wise, Jackson released The Duke
(Razor & Tie, 2012), a tribute to Duke Ellington
which gives many Ellington classics an updated, punchier sound, somewhat similar to Dr. John
's Duke Elegant
In retrospect, perhaps that Jumpin' Jive
album (or the other non-rock albums) shouldn't have been so much of a surprise. Tucked away on the inner sleeve of his previous album, Beat Crazy
, was this statement: "This album represents a desperate attempt to make some sense of Rock and Roll. Deep in our hearts, we knew it was doomed to failure. The question remains: Why did we try?" So who the heck is Joe Jackson, what kind of music does he like and what kind of music does he play in concert?
The short answer to that last question: the popular stuff. That shouldn't be a surprise because that's what most concert goers go to hear. But he had some fun with it, threw in a few covers and served up a number of new songs from his recently released album Fast Forward
(Sharp Practice Productions, 2015).