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World Music Matters

Swinging with Joe Jackson

Audio 10:23

One of the pioneers of New Wave in the late 70s and 80s, British musician and composer Joe Jackson has continually pushed back the boundaries of what music can be.


While his early albums (Steppin' Out, I'm the Man) brought him world-wide success, the classically-trained musician went on to add jazz and electronic music to his punk, ska and new wave roots.

His latest album The Duke pays homage to another boundary-breaking musician - the big band jazz legend Duke Ellington.

Jackson says he'd always admired Ellington, long before making this album.

"Ellington didn't like his music to be called jazz, he just called it American music. He also said there are only two kinds of music - good and bad. He had no respect for categories and boundaries. And that's one of the reasons I relate to him."

But Jackson says he didn't want to make a reverent album.

"I wanted it to be fun. I didn't want to go into the church of Duke Ellington, get down on my knees and worship," he says.

So there was no question of imitating the Duke. Jackson began by ditching the horns.

"I think the worst thing you can do if you pay homage to someone is to imitate them. And I wanted to take this music in directions it hadn't been taken before."

Besides dropping the horns, Jackson brought in other musicians like American R'n'B artist Sharon Jones. Jackson says her rendition of I Ain't Got Nothing But the Blues, is so good the band no longer dare perform the song on tour.

Even more daring was getting punk icon Iggy Pop to record a kind of call and response-inspired version of the Ellington classic, It Don't Mean a Thing If It Ain't Got That Swing.

"I thought it'd be nice to have a voice that was a very deep voice and I suddenly thought of him," says Jackson. "And also a voice you wouldn't expect to hear. I think it's nice to put people out of context. And there are a few people out of context on this record. That's what makes it interesting."

Jackson also got Iranian singer Sussan Deyhim to do a version of Caravan in Persian. An inspired choice, but borne partly out of the need to deal with Ellington's cheesy lyrics.

"I think that lyrics were Ellington's weak spot. For the most part lyrics were added after [the instrumentals] as extras. And some of them are just so awful that when you play the tunes they sound great, when you sing them they sound terrible. It spoils it actually. And I thought that was very much the case with Caravan."

But Jackson claims poor or lightweight lyrics need not be a barrier to making a good song.

"It isn't essential to have great lyrics. Lyrics are not as important as music in a song. Some people have the assumption that a song is a marriage of words and music, which it is, but it's not an equal partnership. It's not 50/50. I think the music's probably 70 per cent."

So much so, if the melody's good enough, you can more or less manage without interesting lyrics. Very handy in pop music.

"You can do good pop music without good lyrics. You can do pop music without good music actually," he says with a smile, breaking his habitual shyness for an instant.

And the key to keeping his voice so youthful after more than 30 years singing?

"By not singing anymore than necessary and a certain amount of technique that I learned to not strain my voice. Actually I think I've got much better as a singer, which may not be saying much, but I think it's true."

Listen to an extract of Jackson performing I Got It Bad and That Ain't Good, in the programme and decide for yourself.

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