Joe Jackson had a total blast, living the punk rock life in late-1970s London, after he broke onto the scene with his definitive debut album “Look Sharp!” and its smash single “Is She Really Going Out With Him?”
Then, he began visiting The Big Apple in the early ’80s, and everything changed.
“When I got my teeth into New York, I think it just opened my mind in a lot of ways,” recalls the keyboardist, who went on to sculpt jazzy experiments like “Jumpin’ Jive” in ’81 and ’82’s “Night and Day.”
“I became a more cosmopolitan person, and then I found it quite difficult to fit in when I went back to England.” He chuckles softly, then adds, “But I don’t think I’ve ever really fitted in, actually.”
Jackson comes to The City on Friday to play from his latest chic project, “The Duke,” a revisionist stroll through the catalog of jazz legend Duke Ellington. Much of it was formulated in his home studio in Berlin.
“But I’m not here all the time. I still go back to New York quite often,” he says. He himself sings on only four tracks, like the serpentine duet with Iggy Pop on “It Don’t Mean a Thing (If it Ain’t Got That Swing).”
Other vocals are drawn from a vibrant palette that includes Sharon Jones, Zuco 103’s Lilian Vieira, and Iran’s Sussan Deyhim, who trills “Caravan” in Farsi.
Backed by drummer Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson, bassist Christian McBride, violinist Regina Carter and guitarist Steve Vai, Jackson — who won a Grammy for “Symphony No. 1” in 1999 — reconfigured 15 Ellington standards into decidedly non-big-band settings.
“I’m not a brilliant singer, I’m not a brilliant piano player, I don’t play the guitar,” says Jackson. “But I think my talent really is for having a vision of the whole thing, and knowing what part everyone should be playing. That’s what Ellington was brilliant at — arrangement.”
Approaching a chestnut like “Mood Indigo,” Jackson studied the combination of three instruments in the original.
“It was very distinctive — a muted trombone, a clarinet and a muted trumpet,” he says. “So I tried to do the same thing, but with different instruments — violin, accordion and harmonica.” To sing it, the Gene Vincent fan put rockabilly slapback on his voice.
How much Duke is on Jackson’s iPod? He pauses. He doesn’t own one. “I don’t like the idea of walking down the street with music jammed in my ear,” he says. “I like to hear music in the air, to feel the airwaves actually vibrating. That might seem strange, but that’s how I feel.”