Riding the new wave of angry young men in the mold of Elvis Costello, cranky, queer British musician Joe Jackson made his mark with two albums in 1979. His debut “Look Sharp,” containing the massive hit “Is She Really Going Out With Him?” and its successor “I’m the Man” established him as an international talent. Not only could he sneer in disgust with the best of them, but he also had no qualms about displaying a sensitive side, as on the track “It’s Different for Girls.”
On his third disc, 1980’s “Beat Crazy,” the prolific Jackson provided hints about his sexual orientation on songs such as “Pretty Boys” and “Biology.” Then he switched gears entirely on 1981’s big band blowout “Jumpin’ Jive,” an ambitious album of jazzy covers. This disc is significant as a reference point for his most recent work. It bridged Jackson’s musical evolution to 1982’s synthy “Night and Day,” featuring the gay-themed “Real Men,” 1984’s retro “Body and Soul” and 1987’s orchestral “Will Power.”
Jackson’s star faded somewhat during the 1990s, as his output of hits failed to live up to the promise of his earlier work. He tried his hand at orchestral music again with 1994’s “Night Music” and 1999’s Grammy Award-winning “Symphony 1,” as well as 1997’s “Heaven and Hell,” an attempt to merge his pop and classical sensibilities.
Jackson came out officially in his 1999 memoir “A Cure for Gravity: A Musical Pilgrimage.” He went on to regain his footing in the early part of the 21st century with “Volume 4” and “Rain.”
It makes sense that the piano-playing Jackson would want to tackle Duke Ellington, as he does on “The Duke.” Another possible attraction to the material is Ellington’s affiliation with his openly gay collaborator Billy Strayhorn. Jackson takes on such Ellington/Strayhorn compositions as “Isfahan” and medleys of “I’m Beginning to See the Light/Take the ‘A’ Train/Cotton Tail” and “Satin Doll/Perdido.”
While taking a fair amount of liberties with the material, Jackson and his musical guests, including Sharon Jones, Regina Carter and Steve Vai, still show their respect. Interestingly, Jack- son doesn’t change the pronouns in the song “I Got It Bad and That Ain’t Good,” which was originally written for a female vocalist.
Joe Jackson and The Bigger Band, featuring Regina Carter, perform at The Pabst in Milwaukee on Sept. 29.