When Joe Jackson's fine tribute to Duke Ellington came out last year I was very excited because it was far from a retro listening experience (ala his equally fabulous but different Jumpin' Jive album from the early '80s). This was a loving, yet modern, interpretation of Ellington's music revisited for the 21st Century with the help of some friends like Steve Vai, Sharon Jones and Iggy Pop. Yup, you'll get to hear Iggy Pop doing Duke Ellington!
I was only disappointed by the packaging on the CD -- the disc itself sounded pretty good all things considered -- in that didn't have a booklet with liner notes or anything in it. At least my copy didn't (more on that in a bit)
More important, the CD seemed like such a small format for such a grand scale vision that Jackson had brilliantly assembled here. This album deserved bigger and better.
So I was thrilled to recently find in racks at Amoeba Records a copy of "The Duke" (Razor & Tie Records) on vinyl! And I'm generally very happy with it.
The pressing is well centered and thick. While not completely dead quiet, the vinyl does allow the music to jump out of the grooves in a fine fashion.
Details like Jackson's sometimes nasal vocals take on more warmth on the vinyl. All around the album sounds warmer with nice decay on the cymbals that ring lovingly in the background on tracks like "I'm Beginning to See The Light." This really helps to elevate tracks like "Mood Indigo" with Jackson's impassioned vocals punctuated by a bowed acoustic bass solo and violin plucks. You can feel more of the round sound of the drum kit on this LP. Bass details are fatter and richer as well on the vinyl version.
The Duke was mostly recorded and entirely mixed, in New York by legendary producer/engineer Elliot Scheiner. The great thing is that this album was recorded and mixed entirely analog which helps to explain why even the CD sounds as good as it does!
Listening back to The Duke on vinyl is thus the best way to keep the analog food chain (if you will) going here.
Analog master takes. Analog mix. Analog playback.
Now, if you are already an Ellington fan and a purist, you might not dig this album quite so much. If you want a more tradition-focused tribute, seek out the fine "Billy Strayhorn: Lush Life" tribute (Blue Note, 2007) featuring tunes the great writer wrote while with Ellington. If you are adventurous and want to hear a modern-leaning, engaging exploration of Ellington's music, Joe Jackson's "The Duke" is your ticket. You could easily mix tracks from this alongside tunes from Beirut, Ra Ra Riot and even your old Squirrel Nut Zippers discs. The reggae-tinged version of The Mooche with Steve Vai's gorgeous soloing is worth the price of admission alone.
Of course, hearing Iggy Pop sing "It Don't Mean A Thing If It Ain't Got That Swing" alongside samples of Ellington talking and encouraging the band on to swing even more is just riveting. The notion of Iggy doing Duke may not appear as odd as it does on the surface. Fans of Pop know that he'd been doing the occasional standard back in the day (such as the version of "One For My Baby" that appeared as a bonus track on a reissue of his 1981 Party album and which he'd performed live around that period).
Probably my only nit on this vinyl collection actually comes from the aforementioned liner notes (I know, "picky picky"). On the inner sleeve it looks like someone less than experienced designer repurposed pages from a CD booklet to fit on a single side of an LP inner sleeve. The way the inner sleeve is laid out on the LP, it sure LOOKS like a CD booklet's pages set out end to end! Its a shame because the typeface seems almost smaller than it would be if on a CD package! Its pretty hard to read. But in those liner notes Jackson does give some good history about Ellington and how this project came about. It also gives detail on the soloists and guest vocalists which is handy. I'm thus guessing that my CD copy was an mistake in that it didn't have a booklet in it.
Again, this is a but a nit.
Overall, I'm very happy to have this great album on vinyl where the music can shine in all its analog glory. Fix the liner notes on the inner sleeve and perhaps give us a special edition on some spiffy 200-gram cool multi-colored vinyl to match the cover art and this reviewer will be a thoroughly happy camper.
You can order The Duke on vinyl via Amazon or check with your favorite local music store
Mark Smotroff is a freelance writer and avid music collector who has worked for many years in marketing communications for the consumer electronics, pro audio and video games industries, serving clients including DTS, Sega, Sony, Sharp, AT&T and many others. www.smotroff.com Mark has written for EQ Magazine, Mix Magazine, Goldmine/DISCoveries Magazine, BigPictureBigSound.com, Sound+Vision Magazine and HomeTechTell.com. He is also a musician / composer who's songs have been used in TV shows such as Smallville and Men In Trees as well as films and documentaries. Mark is currently rolling out a new musical he's written: www.dialthemusical.com.