Sharper Image: Joe Jackson Makes Case for His Own Career

Joe Jackson likes big gestures. He badmouthed MTV and music videos when everyone else was embracing them; he switched gears almost every album, from new wave to reggae to swing music to Latin disco to instrumentals to movie scores–as if to remind everyone that he’s not just some dumb rocker, he studied at music school. After scoring a Top 10 hit with “Steppin’ Out” in 1982, Mr. Jackson beat a slow retreat from pop music, to the point that he’s now on a classical music label, releasing “song cycles” that only occasionally evoke the melodiousness of his earlier work.

His willfulness has proved alienating to many. In The Rolling Stone Illustrated History of Rock and Roll , for instance, while his Angry Young Brit contemporaries Graham Parker and Elvis Costello rate several paragraphs each, Mr. Jackson is dismissed in a half-sentence–alongside flash-in-the-pan Wreckless Eric, for God’s sake–as an “intermittently successful … petulant brat.”

Although Mr. Jackson now splits his time between New York and Portsmouth, England, you were more likely to run into him at somebody else’s show than to see him performing “Is She Really Going Out With Him?” anywhere. As if to make clear how finished that phase is, he’s publishing a book this November, A Cure for Gravity , that’s partly a memoir of his life as a musician, leading up to the release of his 1979 debut Look Sharp!

So it intrigued me to learn that Mr. Jackson, 43, was playing the Bottom Line as part of a small club tour with his bassist for most of the last 20 years, Graham Maby, and his drummer for most of the past 15 years, Gary Burke, under the banner “Just for the Hell of It.” Was he capitulating to critics or nostalgics? Or just displaying another sort of chutzpah?

As it turned out, Mr. Jackson’s only arrogant act was parking a full-size grand piano on the Bottom Line’s postage-stamp stage. This, he acknowledged during the set, prevented the people in the front rows from being able to see him. So at one point he stood up to give the deprived a glance at one of the world’s more unlikely ex-pop stars–an imposingly tall, gaunt guy with jug ears, a balding pate and a Bowery Boy’s mug, tonight decked out in a suit and red polka-dot shirt.

“You don’t really need to see me,” he said. “As long as you can hear me.”

And he gave them much to hear–a jaunty, joyful retrospective of his hopscotch career, interspersed with heartfelt covers of his influences and contemporaries and a handful of new songs. The Ben Folds Five-ish piano trio–a configuration, Mr. Jackson remarked, that he hadn’t played in since a gig at a Playboy Club (circa 1977)–turned out to be ideal for Mr. Jackson’s various musical forays: the sinister jazzy undertones of “Fools in Love” (which they blended with the Yardbirds’ “For Your Love”), the rapid-fire Latin beat of “Jamie” (from 1991’s Laughter and Lust , his last pop album) and the punkish “One More Time.” Mr. Maby’s undulating, guitarlike bass lines and Mr. Burke’s cymbal-driven, taut drumming were simultaneously crisp and loose.

Mr. Jackson’s best work holds up surprisingly well, not just the direct ballads like “A Slow Song” and “Be My Number Two,” but also the more ambitious exercises like the post-disco “You Can’t Get What You Want (Until You Know What You Want)” (from the 1984 album Body and Soul ).

Mr. Jackson apologized several times during the night, telling the audience the show was an “experiment” and that the band didn’t know what they were going to do next; for some of the covers, he read lyrics out of a loose-leaf notebook. “We learned something like 40 songs,” he said, prompting Mr. Maby to interject, “Learned?”

But such a “spon-tinuous” show (as Mr. Jackson malapropped) is a breath of fresh air in a retrogressive era in which pop stars don’t write their own songs and perform live to pre-recorded tracks. And despite the uncertainty, Mr. Jackson’s formerly dour demeanor was nowhere to be seen–he laughed a lot.

Most fascinating were Mr. Jackson’s covers. As soon as he played them, you could hear their influence on his work: Steely Dan’s “Any Major Dude,” David Bowie’s “Drive-in Saturday,” Duke Ellington’s “Mood Indigo” and Ramsey Lewis’ “The In Crowd” (which medleyed seamlessly into Mr. Jackson’s own “Down to London”). His voice might be less distinctive than Mr. Bowie’s or Donald Fagen’s, but he made up for it with surprising warmth and beauty.

And covering Graham Parker’s “You Can’t Be Too Strong” as a solo piano piece, Mr. Jackson was simultaneously ballsy–after all, it’s Mr. Parker’s signature song–and humble. For someone who had gone great lengths to separate himself from his early punk days, it was an acknowledgment of both his kinship to the era and the neglected beauty of its songs.

The weakest material was the newest, although to be fair, it is “work in progress.” The funereal “Drunk Song” treaded on territory better covered by Tom Waits; and a few songs from an upcoming song cycle about different characters in New York City lacked his bite, wit and melody.

On one encore, 1989’s “Blaze of Glory,” about a pop star who “conveniently” dies, Jackson sings (ironically) about going out in a blaze of glory as if it’s a good thing, whereas “You and I just fade away.” For his own career, Mr. Jackson is instead trying to navigate that tricky middle ground–doggedly sticking around, poking at his music, not freezing it in amber, but, as this show proves, not disowning it, either.

Mr. Jackson will be bringing the trio back to Joe’s Pub at the Public Theater for four shows in August. “Every one will be completely different,” Mr. Jackson told the crowd. “So it might suck!” Not likely.