Joe Jackson is a sophisticate, and that's his blessing and his curse. Early on in his career, Jackson made it obvious he wanted to be more than just another clever pop songwriter in a skinny tie, and his ambition to experiment with other sounds and textures led to fine and adventurous albums like Night and Day and Big World. Unfortunately, it also resulted in botched orchestral experiments like Will Power and Night Music, and though he's shown a knack for swing-era jazz in his soundtrack work (particularly on his score for Francis Ford Coppola's Tucker: The Man And His Dream), his compulsion to prove he's more than some guy with good hooks truly gets the better of him on 2012's The Duke. The Duke finds Jackson experimenting with the music of Duke Ellington, reinterpreting a number of his compositions in styles that stray far from the original arrangements. In his liner notes, Jackson says "The only thing I tried to avoid was imitating or competing with the master," and while that's admirable as philosophy, his "everything including the kitchen sink" approach to rethinking these great songs doesn't work so well in execution. In an arrangement dominated by electric guitarist Steve Vai, "Isfahan" sounds like a demonstration of some gizmo being sold at Guitar Center, while "It Don't Mean a Thing (If It Ain't Got That Swing)" wrestles with both swing and electronics with no clear victor, and the clunky sounding synthesizers Jackson adds to several numbers make the album sound as if it was recorded in the dire days of the '80s, not a nostalgic effect that favors Ellington's melodies. Jackson has brought some fine musicians to collaborate with him, and Christian McBride's bass, Ahmir "?uestlove" Thompson's drumming, and Regina Carter's violin are in fine fettle throughout, while Sussan Deyhim's Farsi translation of "Caravan" is a cleverly exotic touch, and Sharon Jones nails "I Ain't Got Nothin' But the Blues" with guts and panache. But most of the time, Jackson's new arrangements of Ellington's compositions don't serve the songs so much as they betray the arrogance of a musician who wants to show us how he can bring this music into the present day while ignoring many of the qualities that made it timeless. Duke Ellington was a man with remarkable creative ambitions who also understood the virtues of simplicity; Joe Jackson clearly follows his hero in the former category, but the latter lesson has been lost on him, judging from The Duke.
AllMusic Review by Mark Deming