As regular readers may have gathered, I’ve become a bit of a Blue Note nut in recent times. Starting with the roster of artists put together initially by Alfred Lion and Francis Wolff, the immaculate sound of Rudy Van Gelder’s production and the striking sleeve designs of Reid Miles, the whole package is a thing of beauty.
Searching through a box of my old LPs the other day, I think I’ve found the subliminal link to a record I bought when I was sixteen years old and working in Boots in Wolverhampton.
“Body and Soul” was Joe Jackson’s follow up to “Night And Day” (excluding the soundtrack to “Mike’s Murder”). Released in 1984, two years after the album that had delivered his biggest worldwide hit, “Stepping Out”.
Joe was always eager to take the path less travelled and rather than play up the pop success that “Night And Day” had generated, he went about recording what is one of the most fantastic sounding records that I’ve heard.
Let’s start with the packaging first though. Although I didn’t know it at the time, the sleeve was a whole hearted tribute to Sonny Rollins’ “Vol 2”, released on Blue Note in 1957. Joe and Sonny strike the same pose – cigarette in left hand, saxophone in front of them, eyes looking slightly skyward. Flip the record over and Joe has taken the tribute further. It is all there – catalogue number in the top left corner, recording method in the top right, then moving down the sleeve, the title, the musicians, the track listing and three columns of sleeve notes. The fonts are the same. It really is very clever and affectionately done.
The album was recorded in the Masonic Temple used by Vanguard Records in New York for classical music recordings. A couple of vintage Neumann M-50 microphones were placed 15 feet in the air to capture the band who were also close miked. But it wasn’t just the band they captured, they got the hall as well. This wasn’t a neutral space, you can pretty much here the space around them. This is partly because Joe’s musicians were so shit hot that he could rely on them laying down the backing tracks in a single take, much like his jazz heroes with a few overdubs of horns and pianos to prevent leakage of the sound between the tracks.
Original M-50’s are treasured now, going for in excess of £20,000 with their power source intact. German manufactured in the 1950s, the company are still going strong as part of the Sennheiser group.
Joe had already shown his passion for the swing era on his 1981 “Jumpin’ Jive” LP. Whilst “Night And Day” hinted at possibilities that a jazzier approach would bring, the “Body And Soul” album went deeper in. It is by no means a jazz LP, but it is hugely informed by those sensibilities. There’s nothing with the electronic pulse of “Steppin’ Out” here. The production is spare in its application but fulsome in its impact. The 80s Fairlight computer sounds of other contemporaneous LPs are a million miles away.
The influences are very New York though – the latin grooves of Ruben Blades, the widescreen arrangements of Gershwin, the attitude of the late 70s new wave/no wave loft scene.
The band was made up of Joe’s regular touring band with some crack New York session musicians thrown in. Graham Maby remains his bass player to this day and is rock solid throughout but gets a solo opportunity just before Vinnie Zummo’s fantastic guitar solo on “You Can’t Get What You Want”, which starts out as a bebop solo and ends with funky Nile Rogers/Carlos Alomar chord riffing.
The record grabs you from the outset. The tumbling drums introduce two piano chords repeated twice before there is a huge blast of horns. This all falls away when Joe’s voice arrives and delivers “The Verdict”. The song was inspired by Sidney Lumet’s 1982 film of the same name, starring Paul Newman as a drunken lawyer taking a medical malpractice case to try and get back on his feet. The dynamics contained within the song are huge and don’t let up.
Joe’s voice is supplemented with two female vocalists. Elaine Caswell duets with Joe on the single “Happy Ending” which is the most commercial and accessible track on the LP.
Elaine is still a stellar session singer performing with the Stones and Bette Midler in the Harlettes, amongst others.
The other singer on the album is Ellen Foley. Foley was coming off the back of “Another Breath” having recorded her previous LP (“Spirit of St Louis”) backed by the Clash. She sang on “Hitsville UK” from “Sandinista” and “Car Jamming” on “Combat Rock”, a fair distance from her initial break which was duetting with Meatloaf on “Paradise By The Dashboard Light”.
The production credits for LP are shared by Jackson and David Kershenbaum. Kershenbaum’s CV reads like a who’s who of 70s and 80s music and he had relatively recently been working at breaking Duran Duran as a dance band in the USA based on his remixes of their “Rio” LP. Don’t let that put you off in the slightest. This is about as far away from soulless mechanised pop that it was possible to get in 1984. Either Jackson’s hand was strongest or Kershenbaum is a man of many talents or both, because this still sounds fantastic today.
I would qualify that statement though. There was a “cleaned up version” released in 1997 – avoid! If you are going to go for this album, get either the CD version from 1983 (it’s 42p on Discogs – what are you waiting for) or grab a vinyl copy.
I’d got hooked on purchasing the LP when Joe had appeared on Channel 4’s the Tube on a Friday night performing “You Can’t Get You Want”. Unfortunately that version isn’t available online but here’s a version from Japan from a couple of years later with a similar band that gives you a flavour of the performance.
This is an LP to be revisited and cherished. It benefits from being played on the best available stereo. I guess it will be okay on headphones or a bluetooth speaker but it won’t do it true justice. Clear the room, check the neighbours are out and whack the volume up. The scale of the dynamic range, the separation of the instruments are all fantastic. But as importantly the quality of the songwriting and performances are stellar too. This is an artist at his peak. Many of his singles still sound great (“Different For Girls” and “Is She Really Going Out With Him?” in particular) but this is his career statement, in my book.
Jackson’s career in the UK never returned to the commercial heights that he achieved before this LP. I’ve always had the impression that Joe never really cared though. He could go back to his jazz and soundtrack work and occasionally revisit and re-address his relationship with the world of rock’n’roll.