Friday, October 2, 2009

Look Back to Look Sharp

Is she really going out with the sax player?

Joe Jackson exploded into rock music in 1978, seemingly fully formed. His pop sensibilities were first rate, his musicianship was amazing, and his anger and punk sensibilities had no rival (Elvis Costello and Graham Parker notwithstanding).

And if there's a better out-of-the-gate one-two punch than Look Sharp! and I'm the Man, bring it on.

But Jackson was classically trained and was already growing tired of two-and-a-half-minute masterpieces. He thought he could channel Gershwin and the Ramones and no one would complain.

He was wrong. And when his third album Beat Crazy included ska and reggae rhythms, the public just wanted to know where the new "Is She Really Going Out with Him" was coming from.

So he broke up his band, assembled a group of jazz players and released Jumpin' Jive, a collection of swing-era blues songs originally recorded by Louis Jordan, Glenn Miller Cab Calloway, and others. (Link for Gmail subscribers.)

Some called this career suicide, but Jackson really seemed to let loose and have fun, playing some of the music he'd loved growing up.

In the nearly 30 years since then, his career has gone up and down. He moved to New York, then later to Berlin, recorded with Suzanne Vega, Ben Folds, and many others. He had a huge hit single from an album where he channeled Cole Porter and recorded the first album recorded live to a two-track master tape (preventing tinkering and later overdubs). His later albums included symphonic works, a concept album about Hell, and a sequel to the Cole Porteresque album. He reformed the original Joe Jackson Band for a reunion tour (despite having declared years earlier that life was too short to ever play with those guys again); they made a live album and great album of new material that would have been a hit in a universe where musical justice prevails. His last album Rain jettisoned the guitar player for a not-quite-rock, not-quite-jazz piano-bass-drums sound that delivers the goods while proudly defying attempts at musical categorization. And even if Jackson doesn't tour with a full horn section, he still occasionally pulls out a chestnut or two from the Jumpin' Jive era.

What does this all mean as the days get colder and the nights get longer?

Maybe the lesson of Joe Jackson is that it's always possible to change and start something new. And that doesn't mean that you can't later go back to something older. It's a lesson of hope... and God knows we need a few more lessons of hope these days. To quote one of those great Jumpin' Jive songs: "We the cats shall hep ya (so reap this righteous riff)."

1 comment:

Steven said...

You are absolutely right! Look Sharp and I'm the Man are an awesome first two albums. I have plenty of his other stuff but he never matched the greatness of those. I used to have those two on a cassette and damn near wore it out. It's all good....