JOE JACKSON — Body and Soul (review)

JOE JACKSON — Body and Soul album cover Album · 1984 · Pop/Art Song/Folk Buy this album from MMA partners
3/5 ·
Chicapah
After presenting an entirely different and somewhat zany side of his musical acumen to the world with his wild but incredibly fun “Jumpin’ Jive” big band jazz album in ’81 and then demonstrating remarkable maturity in his songwriting with his Cole Porter tribute record, “Night and Day,” that rose to #4 on the LP charts in ’82 Joe Jackson was no longer doomed to being forever pigeonholed as a New Wave/Punk troublemaker. True to form, in ’84 he went in yet another direction. Fed up with the spiritually-challenged, somewhat sterile sound that most of the modern recording studios of that era were offering he and producer David Kershenbaum found an old Masonic Lodge in New York that had been used primarily for taping symphonic sessions, set up his band of musicians in the predominantly stone-and-wood hall and captured the bulk of what made up “Body and Soul” with a minimum of overdubs. Therefore the album has a wonderfully warm, intimate aura you don’t find all that often these days but describing what kind of music it contains presents a dilemma for me. It’s kinda strange in a semi-fascinating way. Sorta. There’s a palpable traditional jazz flavor running through the whole record yet it veers off on so many odd tangents that labeling is impossible. Know what I’m sayin’? (Don’t fret if you don’t.)

Take the opener for instance. “The Verdict” is mostly a hybrid of pop and jazz but the song’s eclectic arrangement alternates between booming drums and grandiose brass that characterize the recurring theme and the contrast extended by the jazz piano-led, smoothly sung verses. It’s hard to convey precisely what goes on in this tune. So much so that it frustrates me to the point where I can’t even tell if I like it or not. I guess I’ll just call it unique and leave it at that. “Cha Cha Loco” is easier to figure out. Its self-evident rhythm dominates but there’s a cool and rarely-found Steely Dan-ish atmosphere surrounding this cut that makes its lure irresistible to me. Tony Aiello provides a suitable sax solo and the female background vocals of Ellen Foley and Elaine Caswell add flashy sparks. “Not Here, Not Now” is a ballad that sports a light bolero beat while Joe’s emotional, overwrought vocal performance lends the track unexpected tension. Michael Morreale’s flugelhorn ride is nicely done. Jackson scored a #15 hit single with “You Can’t Get What You Want (Till You Know What You Want),” a catchy R&B-tinted song that cruises over a strong groove laid down by drummer Gary Burke and bassist Graham Maby while the hot horns give it some oomph. It’s fairly standard pop fare until the instrumental section arrives where Maby’s funky spasms and Vinnie Zummo’s jazzy guitar lead elevate the tune’s excitement quotient considerably.

“Go For It” is downright weird. It’s an up-tempo ensemble number that would be right at home on a Broadway stage, performed by a large cast of “Glee” wannabes. The striking horn section of Aiello, Morreale and Jackson are effective but I really don’t know what to think about this queer duck that flies in from left field. Luckily Joe doesn’t linger in la-la land for long but gets ambitious with the next tune, an instrumental called “Loisaida.” It’s a bold mixture of contemporary and classical ideas that is anything but predictable. The highly-dynamic middle segment is very interesting and the overall ambience of this adventurous piece leaves you with a sense that Jackson is an explorer at heart. “Happy Ending” follows and if you think of a less-aggressive, Meatloaf-styled theatrical song you’ll come closer to envisioning what it’s about. Having said that, the chord progression is unorthodox for this kind of over-the-top deal and the rich saxophones give it a touch of nostalgic class. On “Be My Number Two” Joe chooses to limit most of the tune to being sparsely projected by his lone piano and vocal. The stark approach works well and he presents his best vocal on the album at this juncture. He keeps it very simple until the large ending bursts in with loud drums and a brash saxophone melody not unlike what Bruce Springsteen was doing with the E Street Band at the time. He finishes the record with one of its more arresting tracks, the mostly instrumental “Heart of Ice.” It begins quietly, then slowly builds using subtle sax and flute lines before strident drums pull it to its feet and goads it into evolving into an intriguing big band jazz number. Zummo tosses in some energetic jazz licks on his guitar as Jackson and his two-girl crew of crooners inject densely-packed harmonies. It’s definitely not your run-of-the-mill schlock, that’s for sure, but then nothing on this disc is.

While “Body and Soul” isn’t something I listen to very often I’m always taken aback by its uncompromised audacity when I do. Keep in mind that this was 1984 when the awful MTV virus was doing everything it could to dumb down music and its assorted lovers by forcing it into 3-minute live action cartoons for cable TV viewers to fixate on. By freely utilizing jazz inflections and colorings in this collection of eccentric songs Joe Jackson was bucking the trend towards stifling conformity and he should be commended for doing so. I still don’t know if I actually like this album or not but I’m glad I have it in my musical library. I never know when the urge to hear something from off the beaten path will strike me and this more than satisfies that infrequent yen.
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