The Joe Jackson Archive

Review of "Symphony No. 1"

A Particular Entertainment
Ben Varkentine, The Seattle Liberal Arts Review

Symphony #1 by Joe Jackson

Symphony No. 1, Joe Jackson's new album on Sony Classical, is like almost no symphony you will ever have heard before: Jazzy in places, then punctuated with a latin/rock drum, then an airy flute, then "traditional" strings, then electric guitar, and underlying all this Mr. Jackson's burbling keyboards. It is like an old dressmakers dummy on which a new set of threads has been placed; the structure is handed down but the style is something different.

Your critic is reluctant to label any movement as "the best" or even "my favorite." I have listened to the work four or five times as I write this, and I can honestly say that it is one of those that reveals itself to the listener differently each time. I can also say that there is no movement that is without merit, merely some that strike me differently at different times of day. This is the kind of album that befuddles critics, frankly, because if I cannot say that my experience of it is the same each time I listen how can I predict what yours will be? I feel helpless in the face of it. I can only say while I personally do not like it as much as some of Jackson's other work (The superb and beautiful "Night Music" for one), if you buy it on my recommendation I do not think you will flood my server with angry mail.

"I had better say a few words about this piece before anyone else does," writes Mr. Jackson in the liner notes. As one of those anyone elses, I feel I should say that Mr. Jackson has long seemed to me one of those composers whose head is on straight insofar as knowing his own mind and his own music, so I accept his words about what his latest work means to him with a glad heart, and assume you will pay as much attention to them (I flatter myself: More) as to my own. I do not think, however, that he would expect all his listeners to share his experience of it with him any more than I would my readers. Surely that is part of the point of music, that two people can listen to the same piece and come away with different listening experiences yet be similarly moved.

This is not an album for sticking on and cleaning the house, this is an album for closing ones eyes and really listening to. Images cannot help but form behind your eyelids as you do so, and you will not want them competing with stimulus from the world around you.

The first movement, beginning with a sprawling but artful alto saxophone solo by Wessell Anderson, contrasts a sense of freedom with the encroachment of tension. The slow third movement features celebrated trumpet-player Terence Blanchard contributing a solo over strings and keyboards that hints at the beauty to be found even when we despair. It is not the music of mourning for something dead (be it a person or an idea), but the music of someone who must go on without.

In the right mood, everything down to the percussion of the last movement (Variations) can strike me as strangely touching, resolving into ecstacy.

Over the course of his two decades as a recording artist, Mr. Jackson has shown a singular determination to follow his own ideas where they lead despite the consequences in the all-important pop-chart terms. This has led him from power pop to latin music to musical theater-like jazz to where he stands now: Although he records for a classical label, the only thing you can be assured of when you put on one of his works is that it will sound like Joe Jackson composed it.

Mr. Jackson is joined here by some pretty high-class colleagues. Besides those mentioned above, drummer Gary Burke and percussionist Sue Hadjopoulos (known to fans of Mr. Jackson for their work on his albums and tours) and guitarist Steve Vai contribute their talents, and Mary Rowell is a comforting presence on violins and viola.

Mr. Jackson has reached the point where he need only write what his talent compels him to, and he invites those of us who care to listen in.

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Copyright © 1999 Ben Varkentine. Used with permission.