Recording information: Ballsaal, Berlin; Electric Monkey, Amsterdam; Esplanade, New Orleans; Patrick Dillett, New York.
Joe Jackson is a gifted pop songwriter who clearly believes that isn't enough for him. Jackson has been pushing at his own boundaries for decades, embracing jump blues, cool jazz, and swing in the '80s, abandoning pop for classical and symphonic music for a few years in the '90s, and reworking a set of Duke Ellington pieces on 2012's The Duke. Jackson's ambition is as great as his talent, but his talent has always been best served writing intelligent pop tunes, and his most earnest efforts outside the form have also demonstrated just where his skills wear thin. 2015's Fast Forward suggests Jackson is trying to reach a middle ground with this material, delivering a set of intelligent, sophisticated pop numbers that also leave room for him to experiment with a range of stylistic approaches. Jackson blocked out an unusual strategy for making the album; Fast Forward was recorded in four parts, with Jackson cutting four songs each in four different cities, with a different set of musicians accompanying him for each of the four sessions. Jackson's refined melodic sense and straightforward but splendidly executed keyboard work dominate the performances regardless of his surroundings, and while he has some impressive talent joining him here -- Bill Frisell and Brian Blade in New York, Stefan Kruger and Stefan Schmid of Zuco 103 in Amsterdam, Greg Cohen and Earl Harvin in Berlin, and several members of Galactic in New Orleans -- above all, this sounds like Joe Jackson, complete with his arch wit, polished songcraft, and intelligence that only occasionally dips into stuffiness. (It's worth noting that the tracks with Galactic boast a bigger and stronger swing than the rest of the album, and Frisell contributes a superb guitar solo on an unlikely cover of Television's "See No Evil"). Predictably, it's Jackson's smarts that get him in trouble here, in particular on an overwrought version of the German cabaret tune "Good Bye Jonny" and "Far Away," an attempt to evoke the thoughts of a troubled child that sounds like a song from some unfinished Broadway musical. And "Junkie Diva" is a needlessly pitiless attack on Amy Winehouse; one would think being dead at 27 would be punishment enough. But the sizable majority of Fast Forward finds Joe Jackson in excellent form, singing as well as he did in his salad days and leading his various combos with intelligence and cool enthusiasm. If this isn't quite up to the standards of his '80s high-water marks like Night and Day and Big World, it comes close enough that longtime fans will find plenty to enjoy, and some bits that will challenge them. ~ Mark Deming