Joe Jackson Taking 'Duke' on the Road
Joe Jackson Taking 'Duke' on the Road

After opening at No. 1 on the Contemporary Jazz Albums chart, Joe Jackson is now looking to take his tribute to Duke Ellington on the road. Jackson and his six-piece band featuring the violinist Regina Carter are booked for 16 shows in the U.S. between Sept. 15 and Oct. 6 and 22 in Europe from Oct. 14 to Nov. 17.

"I won't make any money," Jackson says, noting he has been touring with a trio in recent years. "It's a much bigger production and it's pretty challenging to work with a bigger band again. Now I have to figure out how I'll work my own songs in."

Jackson's album, "The Duke" (Razor & Tie) debuted at No. 1 on the Contemporary Jazz chart a week ago, dipping to No. 6 in its second week. The collection is 10 songs associated with Ellington that showcases the voices of Iggy Pop, Sharon Jones, Iran's Sussan Deyhim singing "Caravan" in Farsi, and Lilian Vieira of Zuco 103 doing a version of "Perdido" in Portuguese. Jackson sings on only four songs.

"I'm a limited singer - there's only so much I can do," Jackson says from his home in Berlin. Fans will undoubtedly argue with Jackson on that one: His punk-era classics "Is She Really Going Out With Him," "Sunday Papers" and "I'm the Man" revealed a vital dose of pain and energy while his '80s work such as "Steppin' Out" and "Breaking Us in Two" defined crooning for the MTV generation.

For the album, Jackson assembled a group that featured musicians from jazz (violinist Regina Carter and bassist ChristianMcBride), rock (guitar hero Steve Vai) and funk/hip-hop (Roots drummer Questlove Thompson). Carter and percussionist Sue Hadjopoulos are the only musicians from the album who will be touring with Jackson.

Obviously, one element associated with Ellington is missing from Jackson's mix - horns - which Jackson has replaced with a fair amount of electronics, percussion and guitar.

"That was a deliberate decision," he says. "You have to make rules for yourself to give a project and identity. There were two reasons to (not use horns) - I didn't want to compete with Ellington's versions and I wanted to take the arrangements in different directions. That forced me to use my imagination more because it's quite often true that the idea of complete freedom is an illusion. There has to be rules to channel the imagination."

Jackson's initial fascination dates back to his teen years when he first became familiar with Ellington and as a music student, he became interested in Ellington's music from the early and late parts of his career. Ellington's recording career began in 1924 and Jackson tackles his 1929 hit "The Mooche" and a signature song from 1932, "It Don't Mean a Thing (If It Ain't Got That Swing)." "Satin Doll" from the late 1950s is included as well, yet most of the other material comes from the years surrounding World War II when Ellington was at his commercial peak.

"You can't narrow it down - his 50 years of music is so diverse and so fascinating that you could spend an entre lifetime returning to this music and studying it," he says. "Our process (for the album) was the same creatively only we were re-inventing instead of inventing. The compositions are so sturdy there were so many possibilities to explore. It might be the fact that I'm not a jazz musician so I'm coming from outside the tradition and I'm open to ideas like using synthesizers.

"Ellington didn't respect categorization. It's not jazz - it's just American music he would say. The jazz musicians who did record with me helped to give the album a personality. Regina and Christian were just awesome with the way they approached this thing because they're not jazz purists."

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