The punchy beginning to Bryan Ferry’s Jazz Age motivated instrumental album articulates from the outset that this is an album to take notice of. To celebrate Ferry’s 40 years as both an artist and as the creator of Roxy Music, Ferry has re-recorded much of his individual work in the style iconic to the roaring '20s.
Bryan has always been associated with jazz. The singer developed his lounge lizard persona in the 70s, doffing his cap towards the standards in the process. Now the iconic songwriter has layed out plans for a new album, re-working elements of his own discography in a 1920s jazz style. Leafing through his back catalogue, Bryan Ferry worked with a group of top jazz musicians to craft new instrumental versions. Forming The Bryan Ferry Orchestra, sessions turned some of his most popular pieces on their head.
“The Jazz Age” is an instrumental set in which he reimages numbers spanning from Roxy Music’s “Virginia Plain” to “Reason or Rhyme,” from most recent solo album, Olympia. People like like Louis Armstrong, Bix Beiderbecke and Duke Ellington will be bandied around. In justness to Ferry, this isn’t a dilettante detour: he has always, since the time of Roxy’s 1972 debut, when it was far from cool to do so, named these artists as influences. The songs are chosen from 11 albums. This expanse of choice in itself is testament to Ferry’s enduring and creatively considerable career. The albums date from his first in 1972, The Roxy Music, to his recent solo endeavour Olympia, from 2010. The jazz orchestra is made up of individually selected British musicians.
Looking at the tracklisting, “The Jazz Age” seems like a curious proposition. It kicks off with ‘Do The Strand’, the very first song off the era shaping album “For Your Pleasure,” released in 1973. The original recording is full of clever lyrics, recommendations to Mona Lisa and the Sphinx; all influenced by Ferry’s Fine Art degree at the University of Newcastle. This song seems to lack that edge, which really makes the song. Without the synth and vocals, the song sounds a little empty and for one of the best opening songs written, it doesn’t start The Jazz Age well.
Seminal Roxy Music single 'Virginia Plain' saw Brian Eno make extensive use of electronics, using instruments which were simply not available in the 1920s. ‘Love Is the Drug’ sounds completely transformed without its bass hook, yet still wickedly appealing. ‘Avalon’ and ‘Slave To Love’ are two more illustrations of truly outstanding creations. They are upbeat and fun and seem to encapsulate what Roxy Music was really about - they broke down boundaries, and none of that has been lost in this transition.
Nonetheless, sat in between these songs is ‘The Bogus Man’ which after several listens to the album, I am still unable to comprehend why Ferry decided to even include this. It just doesn’t belong, and although ‘Do The Strand’ did not sit highly in my appreciation, this makes it sound like the new ‘If There Is Something’.
The decision to close the album with his solo song ‘This Island Earth’ is a good one. The song is an pursuit of emotions, the different brass and wind instruments in the orchestra bring a new lease of life to this song. When I got to the end it felt like this song was made for jazz, as it just works on many levels. For all the hits within The Jazz Age, and all the misses too, this song collates them together and makes them one, presenting a sense of closure and a justification for us having to endure ‘The Bogus Man’. Possibly best of all are the tracks from Ferry’s more unjustly less celebrated works. ‘Reason or Rhyme’ is a somber waltz into the rain swept velvet neon night, "I Thought," co- written by Ferry’s former Roxy band member Eno for Ferry’s 2002 record, "Frantic," is a reflective dance number, while the edgy funk of "This Island Earth," from the underrated 1978 Ferry album, "The Bride Stripped Bare," now has an even more powerful atmosphere of melancholy and world weary resignation.
For anyone yet to be acquainted with the music of the Jazz Age, this is the perfect introduction to the sound of the era. That Ferry's music can be so construed, and carried off so convincingly, indicates strength in depth to his canon of work. The whole album is a pleasure, it just brings a big smile on my face and keeps it there for its whole 37 minute length. It's not simple, picking a few highlights on this sort of cohesive instrumental project, but apart from the aforementioned Love Is The Drug and Avalon, I could mention I Thought or Virginia Plain. I Thought in particular is an absolute joy. I had no idea I could love another version of this song as much as I do the studio version of it which is featured on Frantic. Its hopeful rearrangement is in such a stark contrast to the melancholy of the original it's entertaining, but it just works so well.
Obviously, this might not be to everyone’s taste, but then Roxy never were just another rock group. Yet for those in the mood, when the Bryan Ferry Orchestra swings, all is right with the world.
Jane Doe writes from the American South East.
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