Joe Jackson

Joe Jackson

interview by Claudio Fabretti
A special afternoon. On the other side of the phone there's "The Man", the former "spiv-gangster", as he defined himself in his early records. Though some old stereotypes describe him as a surly and introverted person, Joe Jackson seems to be the opposite: a very quiet and friendly guy and quite loquacious too. After a 35 years fantastic career, he can observe the actual, frantic musical scene with philosophy, using his typical "look sharp" of ever. He still got the subtle pleasure of an artist who have never give a damn about those critics that Zappa called "the border police", the ones who think that music is made of boundaries and genres barriers. In fact, in his large and eclectic works, Joe Jackson has always had a vision of the all thing he was trying to create: the big picture. With no boundaries at all.

Hi mister Jackson, it's a big pleasure for me to speak with you. Let's start from your latest record, "The Duke", not just a cover album or a mere tribute to Duke Ellington. I found it very "new", definitely a new Joe Jackson album. For instance, you didn't use horns at all, and all the arrangements are typically yours.
Yes, it was exactly what I tried to do. So, yes, you can say that: it's definitely a Joe Jackson album. I mean, Ellington is one of my big heroes anyway, but the idea just grew and grew on it. There are many version that have been done on Ellington tunes, no one is really gone far enough. They don't take it far enough away from what Ellington did, and I felt like someone should do this. I guess I gradually found it has to be me. I think partly my qualification to do it is the fact that I'm not a jazz musician. I'm a jazz fan, but not really a jazz musician and coming from outside it could be easier.

In fact, it's not a jazz album at all. I think you used the Duke Ellington music as a living matter, as a way to explore your music.
Yeah, exactly. Ellington didn't consider his own arrangements to be sacred. He constantly reworked them, sometimes quite radically. So I think my approach is in the spirit of the man himself.

How did you approach Duke Ellington music and what does he mean to you?
There is so much of him so interesting. I mean... fifteen years of Ellington music and it's so diverse, and you can spend all your lifetime exploring this music. I find Ellington inspiring, I like the fact that he always said there's only two kinds of music: good and bad... the most famous thing probably that he ever said. He didn't respect categories or boundaries at all. He didn't even like his music to be called "jazz", he said it was just American music.

I think he was a really modern composer, his tunes never get old...
Yeah, he is always on the head of everyone else and this is very interesting to me. And he always had a vision of the all thing that he was trying to create: the big picture. And within he used amazing musicians he allowed them a certain matter of freedom, so they also get a share of the spotlight. But it's within the structure that he creates. So there is no conflict between the elements of freedom or improvisations and the elements of composition, of structure. That's something that always interested me and I tried to imitate in a way, as a bandleader, because I think that I have similar way of thinking, my very talent is seeing the whole picture and putting all together, so, in this sense, Duke Ellington is a kind of model for me.

Yes, you get the whole picture and you're incredibly eclectic. You've always moved from a genre to another, from pop to soul and jazz, from rock to Classical music. What's the balance in your musical research, how did you manage to explore deeply all those musical genres?
Well, I never knew that that was I was doing! I think I'm just someone who is always been interested in many different kinds of music. When I was sixteen years old I was interested in Classical music, in jazz, in pop music, in rhythm'n'blues, reggae, you know... So this who I am, I think. And I think maybe I'm poly because I don't come from a right musical background, I never thought I was part of some kind of tradition that I have to carry on and I never had anyone telling me what music I should listen to or what music is cool and not cool and so on... So, if I just tried to make music without thinking about it, just do it, what come down it could sound eclectic.

I think this is you approach since your debut: it was called new wave but it was very different from the paradigm of that genre, and so on...
Yes, when I'm trying to create something, I'm just following my intuition, I don't have an intellectual plan. And just the way it comes out it always seemed to be a mixture of different styles. If I'd thought about it more, if I'd planned it more maybe it wouldn't be, I don't know... but also it wouldn't be genuine.

You also composed some Classical music records.
Oh, no, I wouldn't call them Classical records!

Ok, let's say "something close to Classical music".
Yes. In the symphonies I composed I just used the structure of the symphony, but the sound is nothing like an orchestra playing music.

What do you think about rock critics that were so skeptical about those Classical-related experiments? Are those two worlds so distant? (in the meantime we hear a terribly noisy siren and Joe jokes: "So heart attack!", ndr)
There's two sides to this. One is a lot of people who deliberately tried to combine genres and don't do it very well, but at the same time the critics generally don't have the knowledge or the imagination to really judge anyway. So, it's a complicated picture!

I think that many critics are very strict and pedantic, maybe because they always follow the same paths without seeing "the big picture", a global vision of music.
Yeah. Frank Zappa had a great name for this people: he called them "the border police" (we laugh loudly). And Zappa was like Ellington: he had no respect for the border police. Ellington had no respect at all. And this kind of arguments about I mean, actually just let me think about Gershwin... In a couple of months ago I went to see a production of "Porgy And Bess" and it's a big hit right now in New York on Broadway as usual, so people still like Gershwin's music but at the time he was writing it, in the 20's and 30's he was constantly criticized both by the Classical people and by the jazz people, because they said he was somewhere in between and that what he was doing was not authentic: they didn't understand he was authentically Gershwin! We're still listening to Gershwin at this point and it's pretty amazing. His opera, which a lot of people criticized, including Duke Ellington actually, is a big hit on Broadway and we don't care anymore about what those critics said in 1929!

Talking about different musicians and approaches, how did you get in touch with Iggy Pop and how was it working with him?
I met him a couple of times. The first time I met him we were both staying in the same hotel on tour and we had a couple of beers together and a very interesting conversation and I realized he's actually quiet an intelligent guy. People think that he's like some kind of monster, like a werewolf or something like it, but he's a pretty cool guy. So, I was working on this arrangement and I just had the idea that a deeper voice than mine might sound good and I just suddenly thought of him.

"The deepest", maybe! And I think that your duet works...
Yes, I think it's really fun.

You published so many records...
Yeah, too many (he laughs)

...what's the one you like more or you're more affectionate to?
I don't have any favorite record, I don't like some more than others. I can tell what I think is my most underrated album and I think is "Night And Day II": I'm really proud of it but no one seems to be interested in it.

At least I liked it!
Oh, thanks! But I think it's my most underrated record.

I found the sequel "Night And Day II" interesting because it shows a different New York compared to the one of the first "Night And Day". How do you think New York changed from 1982 to nowadays?
Well, not as much as it changed after that... If you look at the cover actually of "Night And Day II" you see the World Trade Center in it. It was right before that happened... the Nine Eleven. I think it really changed a lot after that. I think the whole feeling of the city has changed since Nine Eleven and since Bloomberg has been mayor. The New York of early Eighties, when I made "Night And Day" was rougher and more dangerous and dirtier, but at the same time it was much more free and it was more fun, it was cheaper to live there so you had a better mix of people, the music scene was very interesting...

It guess it was a dreamy New York, as in Woody Allen's films, much more fascinating than now.
Yeah, I really miss that New York, the New York of the Eighties and I don't like it so much now. It has become much more a place for rich people and it's much more controlled, I think people are less free.

Maybe it's the consequence of "Zero Tolerance". I read you don't like this policy, also about smoking bans.
That's one side of it, since Bloomberg passed that smoking ban, he's gone onto so many other things, so ridiculous like making laws that restaurant have to display how many calories are in the food. Now he's just made a law banning of certain sizes of sodas, sixteen out of sodas... and he just goes on on on like this. It's a different feeling than it was. It's like the "no fun era". People are so concerned about the health and the safety... once people didn't really think about that, they just lived. It's not just New York, it's happening very much in the Uk, it's happening in many places.

When you discovered New York as an Englishman in 1982 it was love at first sight. I think this enthusiasm was the real secret of "Night And Day", a masterpiece that has just celebrated its thirtieth anniversary. Do you agree?
Yeah, "Night And Day I" was basically all from my point of view at that time. And it was enthusiastic and full of passion. I still think is my best record together with "Night And Day II".
"Night And Day II" is a slightly more complicated picture. It shows several different points of view. There's a lot of different stories in the city and some of them are happy and some of them are not so happy.

Maybe there are some prejudices about the sequels in general or maybe too much expectations...
Sometimes it doesn't matter what you do... for some reasons no one really knows, people are not interested or they don't like it because it's time to not like it. You can't explain it.

Another album I think is a bit underrated in your discography is "Big World", one of my favorites.
Oh, really?

Yes, because I love some "slow songs" from that album in particular, such as "Shangai Sky", "Fifty Dollar Love Affair", "We Can't Live Together"... Do you still like it too?
Yes, it's ok. I was especially proud of the way that we did it, the way we recorded it live, at the Roundabout Theatre in New York, on January 1986. I'm also very proud of "Rain", my last record. I think that's probably some of my best songwriting, my best lyrics and so on.

At your beginnings, you were closer to post-punk and new wave, even though most people don't know it. What do you feel when you listen to those records now? Are they definitely over or do you still like that kind of music? And what do you think about the actual nu new wave, the new bands that seem to be so influenced by the post-punk generation?
What’s the "nu new wave"? Where did it happen?

Mh, it's a bad critics definition... It's about the generation of Strokes, Interpol, Editors, Franz Ferdinand and many others.
Oh, yeah, I know them. I mean... everything comes back sooner or later. But I think my first couple of albums wasn't really new wave.

They were quite different from the paradigm, actually.
Yes, to me they just sound like "London 1979" and that's where I was. For me there is a kind of nostalgia in there.

So you still like the sound of "London 1979"...
Yes, because it was the time I was there and I was young and it was a good time. There was a lot of new music happening. And then, by the time of 1982, I just left it behind in a way and it started on a new part which I think is still on.

What kind of music are you listening now? Can you mention us some actual musicians you like?
Let me just see what CDs are sitting here... they're recently bought... I just caught the new album by The Hives, I got Amadou & Mariam new album, Joe Williams with The Count Basie Orchestra, Dr. John, Galactic... you know this band Galactic?

No, I don't know them...
They're a great funk band from New Orleans. I love New Orleans music. And I also have Zuco 103 that are on my album "The Duke" on two tracks. I'm listening to Tony Allen, the drummer from Nigeria, the guy who play with Fela. I'm listening to afro-beat jazz...

So, you're omnivorous in your listening as you are in your own music.
I think if you really love music then it's natural to be interested in different kinds of music.

For me you're pushing at an open door...
I always think that people who really dedicated to one specific genre of music they are not really music lovers, they're a kind of fetishists.

Let’s talk about how people listen to music today. Your records were also celebrated for the recording quality: what do you think about listening to music through iPods, iPhones, mp3 files... It's a hard time for being an audiophile, isn't it?
Yeah, I guess so. I personally I don't use anything like iPod, I don't really like it. I like to hear music in the air, from speakers. So, I'm not into that. I don't really understand walking around in the streets with music kind of gem into your ears, so you can't hear anything else is going on around you. I'm not comfortable with that.

I like the iPods, but I think the main problem is in the way they're used, as some people listen to music as a background noise, in a very distracted way.
Yes, it becomes something that is not so special. We've sometimes tried to imagine what it was like before records were invented. If you wanted to hear music, you need to go to hear someone playing live or you had to learn to play yourself. And I'm sure that when recording was first invented, a lot of people said: "Oh, no... this is going to make music not so special and people won't appreciate music so much". On the other hand, millions of people can hear music they wouldn't have heard otherwise. So, there are two sides of the coin. I think we're going into a new version of that situation.

You've never enjoyed being a "rock star", not even at the time you were very successful. I think it was one of the secrets of your career: you only thought about music. What do you think about the musical pop scene of today? Do you think that making good music could still be enough to be successful today?
Maybe it's just a question of scale. It's easier than ever to make music and LPs available, with the Internet, but it's harder to build a large audience.

Yes, that's the paradox.
I don't know, things have changed so much since I started out and I don’t really know what to think a lot of times. When people ask me about the state of the music industry I reply: "Oh no, don't ask me that... I don't know what to say!". It's changing so fast and no one knows what to do, the record companies themselves don't know what to do.

So, now you're going to tour in the United States and in Europe to promote "The Duke". You will play in Italy too...
Yes, I will be in Italy at the end of October (three dates: at the Town Hall in Udine, the 28th, than in Milan at the Dal Verme Theatre the 29th and then in Rome during the Jazz Festival the 31 th, ndr). The show will consist of music from "The Duke" and original songs taken from my other records. I'll be with a six-piece ensemble, the bigger band featuring also jazz violinist Regina Carter.

Do you hope that "The Duke" could also contribute to make Duke Ellington's music more popular?
I don't have any expectations, I don't believe in it. The Samurai used to say: "Expect nothing, but be ready for everything"!

Ok, good luck Joe, I hope to see you in Italy.
Ok, goodbye.
Discography
Look Sharp! (A&M, 1979)

8

 I'm The Man (A&M, 1979)

7

 Beat Crazy (A&M, 1980)

7

 Jumpin' Jive (A&M, 1981)

7

Night And Day (A&M, 1982)

9

 Mike's Murder (colonna sonora, A&M, 1983)

6

Body And Soul (A&M, 1984)

8

Big World (A&M, 1986)

8

 Will Power (colonna sonora, A&M, 1987)

6

Live 1980/86 (live, A&M, 1988)

8

 Tucker: The Man And His Dream (colonna sonora, A&M, 1988)

6,5

 Blaze Of Glory (A&M, 1989)

6

 Stepping Out: The Very Best Of Joe Jackson (antologia, A&M, 1990)

 

 Laughter & Lust (Virgin, 1991)

5

 Night Music (Virgin, 1994)

5

Heaven And Hell (Sony Classical, 1997)

7

This Is It: The A&M Years 1979-1989 (antologia, A&M, 1997)

 

Symphony No. 1 (Sony Classical, 1999)

7

 Summer in the City: Live In New York (Manticore/Sony Classical, 2000)

7

 Night And Day II (Manticore/Sony Classical, 2000)

7

 Steppin' Out: The Very Best Of Joe Jackson (doppio cd, antologia, A&M, 2001)

 

 Two Rainy Nights: Live in Seattle & Portland (live, Great Big Island, 2002)

 

 Volume 4 (Rykodisc, 2003)

6

 Afterlife (live, Rykodisc, 2004)

 

 Rain (Rykodisc, 2008)

6,5

 Live At The Bbc (doppio cd, live, Spectrum, 2009)

 

 Live Music (earMusic, 2011)

6

 The Duke (Razor & Tie/Edel, 2012)

7

Fast Forward (Ear Music, 2015)

7,5

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