Photo: Portia Racasi
Duke Ellington was among the most eclectic composers of the 20th century, so it makes sense that Joe Jackson’s new tribute, The Duke (June 26, Razor & Tie), is a stunningly varied, genre-hopping collection. Are you ready for Steve Vai’s screaming lead guitar playing the famous woodwind lines that open “The Mooche”? A string quartet on “I Got It Bad (And That Ain’t Good)”? “Caravan” sung in Farsi by a top Iranian singer? “Perdido” in Portuguese? Christian McBride’s sturdy and inventive stand-up bass matched with synth bass? Jackson sings lead on just four songs, but his distinctive piano and other keyboard handiwork are all over the disc, and the choice of musicians and the intriguing arrangements are all from his fertile musical mind.
With Jackson also producing, the sessions were recorded and mixed by Elliot Scheiner at New York City’s Avatar Studios (in Studio C, a Neve VR room), with additional parts—such as Vai’s guitar and Iggy Pop’s vocal on “It Don’t Mean a Thing”—coming in from outside studios. “Joe’s approach to things is so different and so brilliant,” the multi-Grammy Award–winning engineer comments. “He was extremely well-prepared. He had everything written out—he knew where the string quartet was coming in, he knew where the solos were happening. He had done charts on it.”
The sessions rarely had more than a couple of players in the studio at once. Typically, Jackson would lay down his piano or other keyboard part working to a drum machine, perhaps also adding synth bass. Then McBride and Roots drummer Questlove Thompson replaced most of the synthetic lines, and, over time, parts from other musicians were added.
As for capturing Jackson’s piano, Scheiner employed two mics—a Neumenn M149 and a prototype ribbon mic from Audio-Technica. Jackson’s vocals were cut using a Brauner VM1 (Kirk Brauner edition).