On his terrific and underheard 1991 album, “Laughter & Lust,” veteran British pop-rocker Joe Jackson tunefully grumbled on a track called “The Old Songs” about how the music of our formative years can, among other things, keep us steeped in the past.
Throughout his 30-plus-year career, Jackson has relentlessly bobbed and weaved genre-wise, and when he has revisited his past it has often been with reinvention in mind. Even when reuniting his classic early combo in the last decade he has made new music.
Clearly, Jackson has made a kind of peace with the “old songs” because not only did he perform fairly faithful arrangements of hits from his late ’70s/early ’80s commercial peak Wednesday night at the Wilbur Theatre, he also turned his attention to an even earlier inspiration: Duke Ellington.
In an exuberant, nearly two-hour performance, a gracious and clearly jazzed Jackson and his “Bigger Band” — a sextet of new and familiar faces including jazz violinist Regina Carter and percussionist Sue Hadjopoulos — dug deep (perhaps a little too deep) into his quirky Ellington tribute album, “The Duke.”
If Jackson’s sometimes radical interpretations and mash-ups of Ellington’s classics irritate jazz purists, his adventurous heart is admirable, and he was clearly having fun playing and admiring his bandmates. (And a half-successful experiment is more interesting than another snoozy pop-star-does-standards album.)
The audience appeared on board for the most part, as the group — each wonderful individual players but still coalescing as a unit — worked its way through an exotically percussive “Rockin’ in Rhythm” and the low-down woozy-bluesy warble of “Mood Indigo,” among others. (Also if any folks were moved to check out the originals than that’s a nice byproduct.)
A few of Jackson’s own tunes received tweaks, with the still snappy “Is She Really Going Out With Him?” getting an accordion makeover and Carter’s graceful lines mercifully subbing for the unfortunately dated synth solo on “Breaking Us in Two.” Carter and multi-instrumentalist-vocalist Allison Cornell also performed an exquisite string pas de deux on a biting “Real Men.”
Other songs, including “Steppin’ Out,” the polyrhythmic “Target,” and the angular “Sunday Papers” stayed true to their fidgety roots.
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