In the Summer of ’81, a New Wave firebrand became the first neo-swing king
Joe Jackson always had titanium testicles. Jumpin’ Jive was the first time he really proved it.
He would subsequently spend a generous portion of his career making musical left turns and prioritizing inspiration over canny commerciality. His next album, Night and Day, where he abandoned guitars and leaned into Latin rhythms, would be his most successful splash of willfulness, but far from his last, as he went on to everything from neo-classical compositions to Duke Ellington reboots.
But in 1981, Jackson had given the world three rock albums in a row. And the swing revival was still about a decade and a half away. So when the New Wave wonder unveiled an album of lovingly reverential covers of tunes made famous in the ‘40s by the likes of Louis Jordan and Cab Calloway, with a three-man horn section and nary a guitar in sight, the scratching of heads was a more widespread response than the ka-ching of record store cash registers.
Unsurprisingly, American rock radio maintained a greater distance from Jumpin’ Jive than a skittish deer from a guy with a camo vest and an Ammosexuals Monthly subscription. Accordingly, it became Jackson’s lowest-charting album in the U.S. up to that time.
VIDEO: Joe Jackson performs “Is You Is Or Is You Ain’t My Baby” and “Jumpin’ Jive” in concert 1981
But while Jumpin’ Jive wasn’t what anybody was looking for at the time, the drastic left turn ended up being just the right thing for Joe. In the long view, it seems to have served as a sort of palate cleanser that enabled him to divest fully from the guitar-based rock of the early albums that made his name, setting him up for yet another unexpected move on the next year’s Night and Day.
But just as importantly, in and of itself Jumpin’ Jive was an absolute hoot. Jackson’s passion for WWII era swing and jump blues sounds is obvious. And while he mostly honors the original arrangements, the album is anything but a rote museum piece. It’s a fresh, vibrant recording overflowing with all the energy and humor inherent in the tunes. In other words, it swings.
Only stalwart bassist Graham Maby remained from the band that backed Jackson on his first three LPs. Joe’s new comrades in swing were a batch of mostly British jazzers including pianist Nick Weldon, alto saxman Pete Thomas (not to be confused with The Attractions’ bassist), and tenor saxophonist Dave Bitelli. And they all knew how to dig into the deeply swinging, R&B-inflected vibe Jackson was mining.
While Joe’s reedy English pipes might not seem like the most natural fit for the likes of “Is You Is or Is You Ain’t My Baby,” “We the Cats (Shall Hep Ya),” and “Five Guys Named Moe,” he leaps into the fray so enthusiastically and unreservedly it’s impossible to find his gusto anything but infectious.
And for most of the New Wave kids who got far enough past the initial bafflement to delve into the album and uncork its anachronistic pleasures, the material was brand new. Sure, in an ideal world their first exposure to the tunes would have been the original versions, but if it weren’t for Jumpin’ Jive they might never have heard most of these songs at all. And after all, Jackson and company’s takes on the tunes were certainly none too shabby either.
The bluesy, minor-key sass of Jordan’s “Is You Is,” the furious swing of Calloway’s “We the Cats,” the hard-grooving stomp and holler of Lucky Millinder’s “How Long Must I Wait for You” — they all capture the mix of urbanity and earthiness that made the songs classics to begin with. And while Jackson’s attempt at African-American dialect on “What’s the Use of Getting Sober (When You’re Gonna Get Drunk Again)” is as goofy as it is ill-advised, the tune was farcical even in Jordan’s hands, and there’s never a second of doubt about Joe’s heart being in the right place.
In its day, the album never got the props it deserved, as bewildered rockers and scandalized jazzers alike seemingly avoided it in droves. But Jackson would get the last laugh in the mid-to-late ‘90s, when retro-minded types like Brian Setzer and Big Bad Voodoo Daddy ushered in a full-fledged swing/jump blues revival. If Jumpin’ Jive were released around the time Setzer was taking retooled Louis Prima sounds to the charts, it might have fared far differently. But when you follow your nose instead of the crowd, you’re bound to suffer the consequences of being ahead of your time, even if you’re reviving a 40-year-old sound.