Much like the indefinable, circuitous nature of jazz, Joe Jackson’s creative musical process is a self-described mystery. “I never start off with a decision or a plan. I just see how it goes.”
And that was the thinking that drew singer-songwriter Jackson to create The Duke, his second non-original album, 30 years after the first. (“Has it really been that long?” he half-jokes, half-questions.) The Duke pays tribute to Duke Ellington, as Jackson interprets 15 Ellington classics over 10 tracks, but the album is very much Joe Jackson.
“It’s reinventing and reworking already existing music and showing it in a different way,” says Jackson. “I certainly brought my own approach…otherwise, there’s no point in doing it.”
Perhaps most daring and defining of the decisions on The Duke was to go in a direction that didn’t use horns. (Like any great jazz album, brass instruments dominated the original recordings.) “If you give yourself rules, it helps,” says Jackson, countering the notion that regulations inhibit the creative process.
A five-time Grammy winner in his own right, Jackson is a fan of other musicians coming in and doing something similar: reworking his compositions.
“I love it when people cover me,” says Jackson. “Even if the version sucks, I’m still flattered.”
British-born Jackson studied composition at London’s Royal Academy, and he released his first album, Look Sharp! in 1979. He found quick commercial success, but Jackson was soon recognized for his adventurous decisions with music, as he frequently shifted gears throughout his career. His albums initially featured catchy, hard-hitting tunes, but he soon took on a more sophisticated approach, as he explored less mainstream sounds.
Jackson’s eclectic career collection spans jazz, Latin, pop and rock genres, with hit singles including “Is She Really Going Out with Him?” “You Can’t Get What You Want (Till You Know What You Want)” and “Sunday Papers.” He also worked on several scores for films, collaborating with Suzanne Vega for “Left of Center” on the 1980s classic Pretty in Pink soundtrack.
He reveals that the worst advice he’s ever been given, obviously, was to “stop messing around with music, and get a real job.”
Jackson’s projects are a mysterious, creative process—“I don’t think that anyone knows where ideas come from,” he states. In contrast, inspiration for lyrics can come from anywhere—a joke at a bar, observations about an environment.
But outside of music, Jackson doesn’t stray far from everyone’s typical hobbies of reading, watching movies and the like. And if he did, “I probably wouldn’t tell you,” he deadpans.
Not that Jackson has much downtime. His primary residence is “theoretically” in Berlin, but he has spent the last three months in New York and maintains close ties to the city, particularly because his band is in Gotham.
Though Jackson prefers Berlin for its concurrent buzzing energy and laid-back vibe, one particular exclamation point that New York has is Jackson’s favorite venue—the Apollo Theater in Harlem. (Not coincidentally, the famed stage has also hosted Duke Ellington.)
Jackson’s favorite locales are funky, older theaters that seat a relatively small crowd of 1,000-3,000, and he’ll be able to experience another one when he comes to the Westhampton Beach Performing Arts Center on Sunday. East End audiences will get a taste of The Duke, Jackson classics and some under-the-radar tunes. Jackson is particularly excited that Regina Carter will be joining him on violin.
“I get a great reaction to songs that aren’t well known,” says Jackson. “The audience isn’t stupid…People want to be surprised by live music.”
Much like Jackson seems to surprise himself when everything on an album is said and done.
Joe Jackson will be at the Westhampton Beach Performing Arts Center on Sept. 23 at 8 p.m. Tickets are $100, $125, $150. 76 Main Street, Westhampton Beach. 631-288-1500, whbpac.org.