Joe Jackson – Fast Forward
(earMUSIC – CD Review by John L. Walters)
‘God must think he’s God or something, ruling it over us’ is the priceless opening line of Joe Jackson’s ‘Keep on Dreaming’ on his impressive new album Fast Forward (from 2015). It’s not jazz, but it will appeal to jazz fans who appreciate Jackson’s way of combining tuneful, literate musicality with sharply observed lyrics about love, loss and people’s inhumanity to each other. He shows a superior taste in sidepeople: Bill Frisell, Regina Carter, Brian Blade, Greg Cohen, Donald Harrison Jr and superb drummer Stanton Moore.
Fast Forward is a 16-track album, structured as a sequence of four EPs. Each set of four songs was recorded in a different city: New York, Amsterdam, Berlin and New Orleans.
So if you ever wanted to hear Frisell and Blade rock out on Tom Verlaine’s New Wave classic Hear No Evil (made famous by the composer’s band Television in the 1970s), this is your chance. But this is by no means a highlight – the album is full of passionate performances. And Jackson’s covers – with the exception of his magisterial Duke album – are rarely as well crafted as his originals. He delivers a version of the German cabaret song Goodbye Johnny with astonishing venom, yet for sheer, cathartic anger, there’s little to beat If I Could See Your Face, whose second verse tackles so-called ‘honour killings’.
On other tracks, Jackson’s natural inclination to kick against the pricks is leavened by humour and experience. Poor Thing demonstrates the songwriter’s version of positive thinking: ‘Just think of the millions and millions of horrible things that can happen and happen each day. But on we go. There must still be a few million chances that just a few things could still turn out OK. So on we go.’ On first hearing, Satellite might sound like the best Steely Dan song they never made, but on further listening, it couldn’t be anything other than classic Jackson.
Jackson’s best songs (like those of the Dan’s Becker and Fagen) have the qualities of the Great American Songbook in their seemingly effortless melding of vocal melodies, literate lyrics and killer hooks. Kings of the City, So You Say and The Blue Time are songs you could imagine other artists, including jazz musicians, making their own.
You sense that the reason Jackson likes to employ jazz musicians is not so much for their improvisatory invention as for their ability to inhabit and serve a composer’s musical world; there are few solos, and nothing that could be described as a jazz feel. Regina Carter contributes a terrific solo to the opening title track, which is a riposte to the nostalgic, backward-looking state of mind that older musicians and fans can so easily inhabit, rejecting those who are ‘Either miserable with millions or dying for a dime / Desperate to live forever or lucky to live at all.’ (For all I know, the Fast Forward title may be a deliberate swat at the highly successful Rewind festivals of 1980s pop.) Carter’s violin snakes sensitively around Jackson’s purposeful, chiming chords with charm and gentle irony. Despite Jackson’s protests, this evokes nostalgia for a time when world-class jazz musicians routinely sat in with world-class songwriters
For anyone who enjoys good songs, expertly realised, Fast Forward delivers a master class in the genre.