Joe Jackson takes on The Duke
Wilbur Theatre, Boston, September 19, 2012
Reviewed by Jeffrey B. Remz
Joe Jackson started off his first gig in Boston in more than four years with his take on Duke Ellington's It Don't Mean a Thing (If You Ain't Got That Swing). Jackson, sitting stage left alone on stage with his keyboards sang "What good is melody, what good is music/ If it ain't possessin' something sweet
It ain't the melody, it ain't the music / There's something else that makes the tune complete."
In the case of Jackson, that would be a voice remaining quite intact more than 30 years after he struck pay dirt with his first song, a top notch band, a willingness to yet again go in a different direction and a catalogue that remained sturdy and vibrant no matter its age.
The British native is touring these days behind his tribute to Ellington "The Duke," although listeners unfamiliar with Ellington may not exactly gain a new found appreciation for him either because both on disc and in concert, Jackson strayed from the originals.
His takes on songs such as Caravan, Mood Indigo, Rockin' In Rhythm and Perdido/Satin Doll maintained some relationship to the originals, but Jackson was not afraid to put his own tattoo on the songs.
Jackson could not be accused of caring all that much about commercial success for a long time. The Ellington bent is just the latest in a long line of experiments, although this is not his first venture into jazz. He went big band in 1981 with "Jumpin' Jive" and a year later paid homage to Cole Porter in "Night and Day."
Jackson was not afraid tackle "The Duke" live either, playing 7 of the 10 songs. That could have been a lot, but the songs felt familiar enough and delivered so well that it didn't leave fans passing time, waiting for the more familiar.
Of course, Jackson did not shy away from his hits either, including the second song of the night, a solo version of Be My Number Two, Breaking Us In Two, a sharp version of the jazzy Steppin' Out and encoring with Is She Really Going Out With Him, the skewering Sunday Papers before ending with A Slow Song.
While Jackson manned the keyboards and took care of the vocals - his voice remains just about the same as when he started out in 1979 - he also was ably backed by a very strong band featuring Regina Carter on violin, Allison Cornell on keyboards and backing vocals, a superb time keeper in drummer Nate Smith, Adam Rogers on guitar, who added heavier and steelier licks when needed, Jesse Murphy on both upright and electric bass plus tuba (the instrument he played in a real sharp version of Is She Really Going Out With Him?, featuring only Jackson on accordion and tuba) and long-time percussionist Sue Hadjopoulous.
Every player added much to the 110-minute show, filling the spaces capably whether on the jazzier, mid-tempo pop or slightly more rocking sides.
The regular set was smartly book ended with a reprise of It Don't Mean a Thing. Only this time, Jackson's band was on stage and having their say in the song before exiting in ones and twos, leaving Jackson back alone right back where he started.
That was a smart move as well because Jackson once again demonstrated that his melody and music were good - very good - but there was also something plenty sweet about how he put the music across.