The last time Joe Jackson was really on jazz fans’ radar was when Kurt Elling made a remarkable cover of his smash hit ‘Steppin’ Out’ four years ago.
Now with his first new album mostly made up of his original songs in some seven years and three years on from his generally well received Ellington tribute The Duke Jackson has made a series of globetrotting recordings both in the States and in Europe in the company of a rolling cast of players some of them big time jazz players including guitarist Bill Frisell, drummer Brian Blade, violinist Regina Carter, bassist Greg Cohen and Galactic’s Stanton Moore plus horns led by Donald Harrison.
Split into New York, Amsterdam, Berlin and New Orleans sections the album opens with the wordy title track, a quietly inuring world weary beginning the song coming alive with Regina Carter’s burning solo. More uptempo, ‘If It Wasn’t For You’ has stronger rhythm but settles into an area listeners to Radio 2 might be more at home with than those tuning into Jazz FM.
A great inclusion is a fizzing cover of ‘See No Evil’ from Television’s classic Marquee Moon album Jackson snarling and edgily spitting out the lyrics the album suddenly coming alive against feral guitar.
‘Kings of the City’ is jazzier and has plenty of promise after the quietly beckoning keyboards at the beginning Jackson’s lyrics looking back in sadness rather than anger with so much silence to chase away about life in a boring town as the lyrics have it this song has a strong jazz sensibility and could go into many directions, a sort of Steely Dan vibe played way down.
‘A Little Smile’ on the Amsterdam section has plenty of spirit – Jackson joined by Zuco 103’s Stefan Kruger and Stefan Schmid and the Concertgebouw orchestra. ‘Far Away’ led off by what sounds like harp introducing the young teenage singer Mitchell Sink is a little bit of a distraction but the vocal soars beautifully and works in the end.
‘So You Say’ is a gem: the band cooking up a little mambo sidling in behind Jackson’s self effacing drawl, the middle section piano solo again shows plenty of possibilities for further jazz interpretation and it’s on tracks like this that you just realise what an extraordinary songwriter Jackson is.
‘Poor Thing’ didn’t do quite so much for me at first although it does grow on repeated listens. Rocking out ‘Junkie Diva’ passed me by a bit too the sparks not quite flying. But with saxophone in conversation with trumpet ‘If I Could See Your Face’ is a bit different, a mock operatic grandeur to it although again this part of the album sags.
‘The Blue Time’ is much more effective, grandiose chords and a gorgeous vocal from Jackson soaring into his falsetto range. The inclusion of a version of a 1930s German cabaret song ‘Good Bye Jonny’ is a bit baffling and comes as a bit of a jolt late on and sometimes there seem to be several albums trying to escape here. The vibrant wired feel of ‘Neon Rain’ which follows is a world away but there’s no obvious thread at all here to connect all of the parts. ‘Satellite’ with the Harrison horns and the crew from Galactic stroked home by Stanton Moore has a likeable swagger to it, and ‘Keep on Dreaming’ by contrast is the kind of song Freddie Mercury could have sung featuring some fantastic guitar picking out holes in the melody to light up the whole affair.
The funky ‘Ode to Joy’ (no not that Ode to Joy!) draws the sprawling album to a close. The good news is there’s more here to admire and enjoy than to dislike even if not everything really hangs together in terms an overall album. There’s not a huge jazz sensibility to it either but that’s not an issue but there is a tantalising potential to much of the material and it’s interesting how Elling found it and ran with it, something that could happen again with a good deal of what’s here. Songs like ‘So You Say’ and ‘The Blue Time’ lift the whole affair into a menu of songs that you just know you’ll be listening to over and over again. Released on 2 October
‘A Little Smile’ from the Amsterdam section of Fast Forward is above