In 1981 Jackson recorded Jumpin’ Jive, a ‘musical vacation’ paying tribute to Swing and Jump Blues artists such as Louis Jordan and Cab Calloway. Returning to songwriting, Joe spent a large chunk of 1982 in New York. The result was Night and Day, a more sophisticated and melodic record built around keyboards and Latin percussion, rather than guitars. With a new guitar-less band, Jackson hit the road for a whole year, and the album became his biggest success, spawning the hit singles Steppin’ Out, Breaking Us In Two and Real Men and going platinum in the US. During the tour Joe also somehow found time to write his first film score, for James Bridges’ Mike’s Murder. (He would go on to write several more, including most notably for Francis Ford Coppola’s Tucker in 1988).
Now based in NYC, Jackson’s next album Body and Soul (1984) was in a similar vein to Night and Day but featured a horn section (which, along with the Blue Note-inspired cover art, led many people to wrongly assume he’d made a jazz record). For Big World (1986) Jackson stripped everything down to a 4-piece again, and recorded live, direct to 2-track master. In 1989 he went in the opposite direction with the majestic, semi-autobiographical Blaze of Glory, and toured with an 11-piece band. Laughter and Lust (1991) was more like a mainstream (though still idiosyncratic) rock record, but yet another lengthy world tour left Jackson exhausted and at a creative dead end. As he sees it, his workaholic phase – which also included several film scores, a live album (Live 1980-86), an instrumental album (Will Power, 1987), guest appearances with Suzanne Vega, Ruben Blades and Joan Armatrading, and endless touring – was over.