For a guy like Joe Jackson, who’s got a trail of great songs that go all the way back to the late ’70s, it must be tough to strike a balance in his shows between trotting out the tunes his fans adore and demand, and keeping things fresh for himself. Nevertheless, he’s an artist who loves the experience of laying down his tunes in front of an audience. In fact, he’s popped out a number of live records over the years, starting in the ’80s with Live 1980/86, and running up to his latest release, the generically titled Live Music. “I’ve done a few live records, because I’ve always loved playing live,” Jackson told us, “and I’ve always felt like that’s the best part of what I do.”
Jackson’s restless muse and his passion for performance have led him to reinvent his catalog onstage from the beginning. As early as the aforementioned ’80s live album, he was recasting his classic tunes in radically rearranged formats, delivering the new wave/power-pop hit “Is She Really Going Out With Him?” as an a cappella doo wop tune, and finding ways to re-imagine songs originally recorded by a guitar/bass/drums lineup for a band with two keyboardists and no guitarist. He manages a similar feat on Live Music, where he pumps out cuts from all across his career in piano-trio mode. “In some cases they never had guitar in the first place,” Jackson says. “People often forget that Night and Day had no guitars on it.” In fact, Live Music boasts a number of tunes from that 1982 album, Jackson’s biggest ever, including “Steppin’ Out,” “Slow Song,” “Another World,” “Cancer” and “Chinatown.”
Backing Jackson up on Live Music are the bassist and drummer from the original Joe Jackson Band, Graham Maby and Dave Houghton, with whom he seems to have found a brand new groove. “We’ve been doing this together for a few years now and it’s been great,” Jackson says. “For one thing, we’re old friends, and that’s always nice.” But beyond the bonhomie, Jackson enjoys interacting with Maby and Houghton in a trio format. “I feel like the trio is stripping it down to the absolute bare minimum and then seeing what you can do with it. It’s pretty amazing what you can do if you use your imagination. It can sound big, it can sound really varied.”
Besides redefining his old songs with the current live lineup, Jackson mixes things up by including a few carefully chosen cover tunes on Live Music. Probably the only artist whose songs have been covered by both Anthrax (“Got the Time”) and Tori Amos (“Real Men”), Jackson picks his own outside material with an ear for adventure. David Bowie‘s “Scary Monsters,” The Beatles‘ “Girl” and Ian Dury‘s “Inbetweenies” all get Jacksonized. “We actually do a lot of covers,” says Jackson. “I think it has to be something that I can get comfortable with vocally, and that I feel I can sing in my own way. But it also needs to be something where I can see a different way of doing it, because I don’t see the point in trying to imitate the original. I’m trying to make them as different as possible.”
In that spirit, Jackson has also got another project in the works, a tribute to the compositions of Duke Ellington. He’s been performing his own version of Ellington’s “Mood Indigo” for some time, but this recording will find him interpreting a whole host of Ellington tunes in typically eclectic fashion, aided by everybody from guitar hero Steve Vai to The Roots. “It’s starting to come together finally, after years of thinking about it and planning it. I’ve done so much touring over the last few years that I really haven’t had much time to work on anything else. I just spent a week in Amsterdam working with a [Brazilian] band called Zuco 103—they’re so good. We collaborated on two tracks. I’m gonna be in New York again picking it up with Amir from The Roots. We’ll have a good chunk of it done by June. I don’t know if it’ll be out this year, it may not be until next year.”
In the meantime, Live Music will serve to remind listeners that the man who spent the last three decades recording everything from big-band swing to orchestral suites never tires of offering up new sides of his musical personality. “We’ve done so much touring the last few years,” Jackson says, “we’ve done so many great shows—it needed to be captured. I’m really happy that it’s documented.” Of course, that’s no guarantee that by the next time Jackson toddles into your town, some of these tunes won’t have been drastically reinvented once more.