By James Eliopulos with Brian Michaels contributing Photographs.
Saturday night at the Orpheum Theater the works of two of the most interesting and versatile composers, arrangers and performers of the 20th century were reworked, juxtaposed and even mashed up a bit – to the raucous delight of an appreciative audience, whose show stopping applause, cheers and whistles seemed to surprise and thrill the band responsible for all the magic more than just a little bit. Blazing through a set list that began and ended with a Duke Ellington composition, in fact the same composition – It Don’t Mean A Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing) began the evenings entertainment as a boozy, ballad-like solo and reappeared to close the main portion of the show as a hard charging showcase for each of the band members instrumental talents – Joe Jackson led an all-star group through two hours of musical history and pleasure.
The ‘Bigger Band’ that is accompanying Jackson this tour is comprised of the wonderfully talented jazz violinist Regina Carter (her solos moved between tasteful and terrifically torrid); Jackson protégés Sue Hadjopoulos (percussionist extraordinaire) and Allison Cornell (keyboards, viola and banjo as well as vocals including the lead on Perdido and looking beautifully stylish in close cropped hair, vest and tie); Jesse Murphy (great timing and tone on Fender bass, acoustic bass, tuba and gorgeous harmonies), Adam Rogers (who answered any questions one might have had about how Ellington would have used an electric guitar in his compositions if Les Paul had sold his first solid body in 1922 instead of 1952) and Nate Smith who jumped to the top of my list of all the drummers Jackson has worked with over the years. Nobody in popular music has written more songs that can stand alone on just their bass and drum parts than Joe Jackson. One can only hope he gets the writing bug with Murphy and Smith close at hand.
Los Angeles based (by way of Teheran) vocalist Sussan Deyhim joined the band for one song – a terrific, crowd-pleasing rendition of Caravan sung in Farsi.
Drawing from Ellington’s recorded catalogue that stretches from the 1920’s through the early 1970’s, and Jackson’s own that reaches from 1978 through 2012 (and trust me, he ain’t done yet) the one time musical director at the London Playboy Club and his band made it a seamless night of well written and brilliantly played material. The audience deserves a bit of credit as well. For all the talk of the British pop music scene in the late 70’s and early 80’s one could hear before the show – the flaming hot delivery of the 1931 Ellington instrumental ‘Rockin’ In Rhythm’ generated such a thunderous ovation the usually unflappable graduate and now Fellow of the Royal Academy of Music stopped his drowned out introduction to the next song and announced ‘You know, we like applause as well as anyone’, and proceeded to let the audience have it’s say.
Other highlights from the Ellington material (available on Jackson’s most recent release, appropriately titled The Duke) included a terrific mash up of The Mooche and Black and Tan Fantasy, a too brief homage to Take the A Train, and Satin Doll. Jackson has long had a solo take on Mood Indigo in his live set. The version with full band was every bit as satisfying.
If you have made the always well-rewarded effort to see Jackson on more than one tour you can appreciate the tremendous body of work and differing styles he has to draw from. In fact one of the most pleasing dimensions of his composing is that no matter what band configuration he employs or what arrangements of his songs he offers up, there is always a very pleasing new angle or twist to be found. Some songs, even those by brilliant composers, find their true soul when imagined by other artists (Bob Dylan’s All Along the Watchtower as redone by Hendrix, or Lennon & McCartney’s take on Meredith Wilson’s ‘Till There was You’).
Jackson himself has always been a marvelous interpreter of other composers – Zappa’s Dirty Love, Lennon & McCartney’s For No One and Bowie’s Life on Mars for example. He applies that same level of passion for the material and his ability to find the rhythmic nuance to his reworking and rearranging of his own compositions as well. That is no small talent, and also no small bit of artistic courage. To hear a song in some way other than one has written it requires an ability to twist a muse’s nose a bit. To go on stage and play your biggest hit as leader of a pop combo, reworked as a New Orleans street shuffle complete with rhythmic harmonies that would make the Persuasions proud and a back line played on a tuba . . . that is something else again.
Saturday night Jackson’s own material interspersed with the Ellington numbers included It’s Different for Girls, Breaking Us In Two, Stepping Out, Is She Really Going Out With Him?, Sunday Papers and the evenings final A Slow Song. It was a fantastic evening in LA; let’s hope Joe Jackson stops in again soon.