When pianist, vocalist and band leader Joe Jackson contemplated undertaking a Duke Ellington tribute, he decided against reverence. Instead, as he’s displayed throughout his career, he fashions his Duke homage in his distinct cross-genre pop style fueled by his stellar — but never flashy — piano. The Duke, Jackson’s sumptuous 10-track affair, spans 14 tunes from the Ellington songbook and is bolstered by a multicultural crew of collaborators, including Iranian singer Sussan Deyhim, the Brazilian/Dutch band Zuco 103′s vocalist Lilian Vieira, The Roots’ drummer Ahmir “?uestlove” Thompson, guitarist Steve Vai, and two bona fide jazz noteworthies, violinist Regina Carter and bassist Christian McBride.
As a result, The Duke is more a multi-hued rock project than a jazz album. “Caravan” simmers with electric guitar as Deyhim sings the lyrics in Farsi. “Rockin’ in Rhythm,” with its New Orleans spanking drums, tuba beat and Jackson’s club piano is a dance-floor joy. “I Ain’t Got Nothin’ but the Blues” gets taken for an R&B ride by Sharon Jones. Beyond rock, the eclectic Jackson enlists a string quartet for his sober take on “I Got It Bad (And That Ain’t Good),” serves up a samba vibe on “Perdido” with Vieira singing in Portuguese, and launches into a fun skiffle-meets-hot club rendition of “It Don’t Mean a Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing)” with Iggy Pop sharing vocals.
What would Ellington have thought about Jackson’s playful left-field approach to his music? Certainly, the jazz legend would have applauded Jackson’s fecund imagination, given that he was famously quoted as not believing in “categories of any kind” and that “there are two kinds of music: good music, and the other kind.” The first-rate The Duke firmly positions itself in the former camp.