07 JulRalph Farris Speaks with Joe Jackson
ETHEL’s good friend Joe Jackson has just released a brilliant Duke Ellington tribute album entitled The Duke. Joe was kind enough to answer some of my questions about the project, and his working style.
(Full disclosure: ETHEL performs on the album as well, and you can pick it up HERE…)
RF: You have spoken of being “a quick worker in the studio.” Were you able to hold to that ideal in the making of this album?
JJ: Yes. I’m always super-prepared. I believe the recording studio is for recording – not for rehearsing or working out arrangements.
RF: Were you stopped at any time in your creative process, and if so, how did you break through? Were there any obstacles that you could not get around?
JJ: I experimented with arrangements of several Ellington tunes which did not make it on to the album. It’s an intuitive process, just like actually composing – you get an idea that taking a certain road might lead somewhere interesting, so you follow it. Sometimes it doesn’t go anywhere and you have to turn around and come back. Sometimes it leads somewhere interesting. But what I’m really looking for, is when it leads to somewhere really exciting and fun. There really is no system or method – I think you can only be guided by your own intuition and personal taste.
RF: Did you actually start with a ground rule of no horns on the album? What other parameters bind the album together?
JJ: Yes, ‘no horns’ was a solid rule right from the start. As soon as you start using horns you’re going to sound kind of like Ellington but not as good. I wanted to take these compositions in an entirely new direction. And also, limiting yourself in some way, actually stimulates your imagination. I think total freedom is an illusion, you can only have freedom if you also have some kind of structure. Having structure and limitations, and knowing what NOT to do, sets you free. The other rule I had was not to do anything with a traditional ‘swing’ feel. I wanted to keep the melodies and mostly keep the original chord changes (with some variations here and there) but have very different sounds and different grooves. ‘It Don’t Mean A Thing’ is the closest to ‘swing’ but even that is a kind of modern, twisted version!
RF: What came as the greatest musical surprise to you as you built this project? Of what innovation are you most proud?
JJ: I’m quite pleased with the way I was able to work 2 or 3 Ellington tunes into one piece. And also, bringing in some counterpoint – on ‘I Got It Bad’ there’s both a fugue and a canon.
RF: What musical tradition do you see yourself furthering with this album?
JJ: I’ve never felt part of any specific tradition, but I think I’m following Ellington’s example. He was eclectic and had no respect for musical categories and boundaries, but was focussed on a personal vision, and looking at the big picture. Ellington said there are only two kinds of music, good and bad – I like to think I’m just following the ‘good’ tradition.
RF: Are you happy with the album? Would you follow the same process, or do things differently if you were beginning the project again?
JJ: Any time anyone asks me how I feel about my latest project, I say “it’s fucking brilliant!” Because everything has to start with me feeling that way, otherwise how can I expect anyone else to feel it?
RF: The earthquake of 2011 struck in the middle of ETHEL’s session for this album. This was certainly a novel experience; have you any studio tales to top it?
JJ: The first day I went into the studio to make my second album, ‘I’m The Man’, the studio was down a flight of stairs, and I hit my head on the top of the door and fell down the stairs. I lay there literally seeing stars (which I thought only happened in cartoons). I couldn’t concentrate on anything and had to go home. Not a great way to start an album. But at least it could only get better.