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Joe Jackson: Symphony No. 1

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Album Review

No one who has been following Joe Jackson's more recent career will be surprised that he has produced Symphony No. 1, nor will they be surprised at its contents, especially if they have heard his previous instrumental works. In his liner notes, Jackson immediately defends himself against the charge that this cannot be a symphony since it is not being played by a symphony orchestra, but rather by a ten-piece ensemble featuring jazz trumpeter Terence Blanchard and rock guitarist Steve Vai. Certainly, the symphony form has been altered structurally in the 20th century, but one of the defining characteristics has remained that it is a work for a large group, and in that sense, Jackson's composition does not qualify, even though he multiplies the number of sounds through the use of electronic keyboards and computers. By "symphonic in structure," he seems to mean that it is a work in four parts in which various musical ideas are explored. Fair enough, and, in fact, in this sense Symphony No. 1 is somewhat traditional, with its second, fast movement and its third, slow movement, which develop several themes, culminating in a last movement that draws them together. Jackson is unusual largely in the kinds of sounds he employs, sounds more familiar in rock and jazz. But leaving aside the question of whether or not Symphony No. 1 is a real symphony, it does function, as Jackson says he intends it to, as program music, tracing a life from childhood to old age. One may or may not think of that narrative while listening, but one feels it, from the way the music slowly emerges in the first movement to the simplicity and confidence of the final one. In this sense, Jackson is both an optimist and a still-young composer; an older one might not have so hopeful a view of old age.


Born: August 11, 1954 in Burton-upon-Trent, England

Genre: Pop

Years Active: '70s, '80s, '90s, '00s, '10s

In his 1999 memoir, A Cure for Gravity: A Musical Pilgrimage, Joe Jackson writes approvingly of George Gershwin as a musician who kept one foot in the popular and one in the classical realms of music. Like Gershwin, Jackson possesses a restless musical imagination that has found him straddling musical genres unapologetically, disinclined to pick one style and stick to it. The word "chameleon" often crops up in descriptions of him, but Jackson prefers to be thought of as "eclectic." Is he the Joe...
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