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 album.
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 (Parlophone, 1999).
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).
He started the show with just himself and his piano. The solo treatment of what were originally fully produced rock songs gave them completely different textures without the grinding guitars and pounding drums diluting the melodies and structures.
He began with a hit from his manic, New-Wave period, “It’s Different for Girls.” The familiar lyrics and melody contrasted sharply, but nicely with the starkly different instrumentation.
The next tune, “Hometown” was from Big World (A&M, 1986) an album of all new music recorded live that also featured lyrics and liner notes printed in six different languages. The nostalgic lyrics were even more powerful in the solo context compared to a full-blown rock treatment.
In contrast, the next solo tune, “Be My Number Two” from Body and Soul, was largely a solo piece originally. All that was missing was the big instrumental climax. Next was the first cover of the evening from fellow Brit, John Lennon, the Beatles-era “Girl” complete with the signs (or joint-toking depending on your point of view).
For the first new song of the evening, “Fast Forward,” Jackson introduced a drum machine which turned out to be a segue to the arrival of the rest of the band and another early hit, “Is She Really Going Out with Him?” Jackson’s bass player for this tour is his original bassist from back in 1979 and his first album, Graham Maby. Teddy Kumpel on guitar and Doug Yowell rounded out the band. Everyone in the band added vocals.
Jackson’s new album was recorded in four different cities; Amsterdam, New York, Berlin and New Orleans. The original concept was to release four songs from each city as its own “EP.” (As I recall, “EP” stood for “extended play” which made little sense because it usually referenced products that had less music than an “LP” (which stood for “long playing”).
Does any of this make any sense these days? Maybe with the vinyl resurgence? Whatever.) In any event, they’ve now been combined for a single release. “A great value,” explained Jackson. “Sixteen songs!” He played nearly half of them.
The New York session may hold some interest for jazz fans due to the presence of Bill Frisell on guitar, Brian Blade on drums and Regina Carter on violin. The New Orleans sessions included several members of Galactic and a horn section led by Donald Harrison, Jr.
In concert, and for the most part, the songs from these sessions didn’t have the serious jazz or New Orleans funk influence that the collaborations might imply. Sometimes it’s hard to judge songs on only a single hearing.
The new songs from these sessions fit right into the rest of the evening’s program as pleasant Joe Jackson songs. One that stuck out was “Ode to Joy.” Jackson mentioned Beethoven in his introduction to this tune and in fact the song borrowed the familiar melody from the Ninth Symphony except, whereas the main theme of Beethoven’s version consisted of a steady series of quarter notes, Jackson’s version added syncopation. A Beethoven themed song might have been part of the Berlin sessions, but it’s actually part of the New Orleans sessions; hence the syncopation.
He’s been including a revolving list of cover songs on this tour. Besides the Beatles’ “Girl,” Jackson also played “Scary Monsters” by David Bowie and “See No Evil” by Tom Verlaine, who was a member of the band Television, a Jackson contemporary. Jackson’s voice still sounds good. Most of the evening he sounded just like he has on his recordings for the last 36 years. However he began to struggle a bit toward the end of his 21 song set. He still managed to hit the high notes, but it was apparent that it became a little more difficult.
He saved what is probably his biggest hit, “Steppin’ Out” for the closer of the main set. The encore featured the Tom Verlaine tune, followed by the guitar driven “One More Time,” the first song from his first album. As that song faded out, the band members left the stage one by one leaving Jackson alone with this piano to finish the concert with one more from Night and Day, the aptly named “Slow Song.”
- It’s Different for Girls
- Be My Number Two
- Fast Forward
- Is She Really Going out with Him?
- Real Men
- Can't Get What You Want
- Junkie Diva
- Kings of the City
- A Little Smile
- Another World
- Blue Time
- Scary Monsters
- Sunday Papers
- Neon Rain
- Ode to Joy
- Steppin’ Out
- See No Evil
- One More Time
- Slow Song
- Joe Jackson: vocals, piano
- Graham Maby: bass, vocals
- Teddy Kumpel: guitar, vocals
- Doug Yowell: drums, vocals