Album review: Joe Jackson, The Duke

Joe Jackson either has an expansive record collection or he's a schizophrenic. One of the most interesting and colorful characters to emerge from the late 1970's British New Wave movement, Jackson has been accused by detractors of of being unable to musically make up his mind. Harsh and short-sighted criticism surely adds fuel to Jackson's fire as he has continued his steadfast ability to push buttons and ruffle feathers in his career-spanning musical unpredictability. The gifted singer, songwriter and pianist has dipped his toes into pools of music as vast as Latin jazz, classical and ska throughout his 30-plus year career as a recording artist. Let it be noted that his stellar 1981 album Jumpin' Jive, an homage to big band music and swing, predated the early 1990's swing music revival by a full decade. How's that for predicting the future with the past ... or something like that.

Fast forward to 2012 and Jackson is still finding ways to baffle and intrigue. His latest release, The Duke is, as its title suggests, a nod to the music of the great American composer and big band leader, Duke Ellington. Jackson masterfully takes the traditional sounds that Ellington is synonymous with and blends them with a heavy coat of modern-day spackle. But fear not — this is not a cheesy or gutless take on the works of Duke Ellington; quite the contrary — it's a heartfelt, sincere tribute to one of the true legends of American music from an obvious admirer.

Jackson's musical palette runs wide and deep, and it's no surprise that he'd hold Ellington in high enough esteem to dedicate an entire record to his legacy. Jazz meets samba meets funk on the fine and clever album that seems to fly by in a wispy breeze as soon as it begins.

Jackson gets some assistance on The Duke from an impressive array of contributors. Soul belter Sharon Jones squeezes out every bit of sweat on "I Ain't Got Nothin' But The Blues" and guest musicians range as far and deep as wizard guitarist Steve Vai, jazz violinist Regina Carter and Roots drummer ?uestlove.

The piece de resistance, however, is the album-closing rendition of "It Don't Mean A Thing (If It Ain't Got That Swing)," which finds Jackson sharing the mic with none other than punk rock icon Iggy Pop. Jackson's cool delivery intertwines with Iggy's sometimes spooky croon and the result is superb. A bouncy, modernized version of this jazz staple is enhanced by the two different sets of vocals that add color and panache beyond any stretch of the imagination. (Audio below.)

Leave it to Joe Jackson to bend the rules and shift and shape the perception to which he holds himself. He never totally fit in with his contemporaries way back when and he's always seemed to like it that way. His brilliant 1979 sophomore LP was cheekily titled I'm The Man. After an impressive career filled with so many excellent albums, with his latest certainly fitting into that superlative category, Jackson proves that yes, he's still the man.

4 out of 5 Stars