Joe Jackson and the bigger band display range, style in Michigan Theater show
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Maybe it was the fashionable, 8:30 p.m. doors or perhaps it was the promise of selections from the Duke Ellington catalog, but there was an air of expectation hovering around the Michigan Theater on Thursday as a smallish-yet-eager audience anticipated Joe Jackson’s appearance with his so-called Bigger Band.
The singer-pianist and his six-piece band met and exceeded those expectations, delivering a tight, jazzy and oh-so musical performance spanning nearly a century’s worth of popular music.
“Our repertoire goes from the 1920s to just a few years ago,” Jackson said by way of setting up the evening’s program. “So that’s pretty wide.”
Indeed it was. But credit Jackson for perfectly pacing his set, sprinkling numbers from his Ellington tribute record, “The Duke,” amid the surprising number of his own hits (and near misses.)
The result was a fine show, full of exquisite playing by an all-star band that featured native Detroiter Regina Carter on violin.
Jackson started the show on his own behind the piano, offering a playful romp through Ellington’s It Don’t Mean A Thing,” working out intricate stride phrases that served as a reminder that he’s always been a fine player.
Gradually, the band joined him, easing into Jackson’s own “Be My Number Two” and building the number into a tour de force and setting itself up nicely to transition into some of Ellington’s signature tunes.
“In a Sentimental Mood” was sweet and languid; “Mood Indigo” was dark and sinister, featuring a downright spooky guitar solo by Adam Rodgers, who played brilliantly throughout the evening.
“Caravan” swung like mad, while a medley of “Perdido” and “Satin Doll” found the essence of each tune, yet still leaving plenty of room for the entire band to step out before swinging back through “Perdido.” It was a beautiful moment, flawlessly executed by the band, which seemed at once loose and tight as a drum.
In addition to Carter and Rodgers, the Bigger Band featured Jesse Murphy on upright bass, electric bass, and tuba; Nate Smith on drums; and two on-and-off Jackson associates, percussionist Sue Hadjopoulos and multi-instrumentalist and vocalist Allison Cornell.
While not as “out” as it was on the Ellington tribute album, the band’s playing on the cover material was confident and exploratory, without betraying the melodic and harmonic genius of Ellington’s work.
That the band could transition so easily from Jackson’s pop tunes to Ellington’s canon is at once a testament to the quality of Jackson’s own material, the band’s considerable range and the timelessness of Ellington’s work.
One thing you can say about Jackson is that he’s always been an ambitious artist, never afraid to take a chance following his muse. Another is that his considerable reach has seldom exceeded his grasp.
Nor did it on Thursday.
It probably didn’t hurt that he was also unafraid to remain loyal to some of his best work. Leaning heavily on material from his 1982 “Night and Day” LP, he performed note-perfect renditions of some of his best tunes with a reverence that was refreshing, even recreating note-for-note the segue from “Target” into “Steppin’ Out,” which closed Side One of that record.
To close the set, Jackson and the band reprised “It Don’t Mean a Thing,” giving it the bigger arrangement that Jackson’s introductory version only hinted at.
After a somewhat perfunctory “Is She Really Going Out With Him,” reinvented as a New Orleans-style, second-line dirge, Jackson and the band concluded the show with an epic “A Slow Song,” building the “Night and Day” closer to a lush, grand climax, before, one by one, the band members quietly made their exit, eventually leaving Jackson alone at the piano to bring the number home.
It was an elegant ending to a lovely show—just as the evening’s expectations suggested it would be.