Roxy Music's debonair leader time-travels to the '20s
By Alan Light
Special to MSN Music
Bryan Ferry (©AP)
"The '20s was the beginning of so many things," says Bryan Ferry. "We take for granted planes whizzing overhead, but imagine somebody flying across the Atlantic for the first time, or people listening to the radio for the very first time. And the literature -- 'The Waste Land' is my favorite poem and [T.S.] Eliot my favorite poet, and that's from this era, and so is 'The Great Gatsby' and Scott Fitzgerald, who was the first writer I really read for pleasure. I fell in love with the romanticism of that period. Also, I quite like the dark side of the '20s, Prohibition and crime and all the gangsters in the audience at the Cotton Club."
Ferry's new album, "The Jazz Age," seems like one of the unlikeliest pop projects in recent memory. It's a collection of songs spanning the singer's 40-year career, on his own and as the frontman for Roxy Music, all arranged as instrumentals in the 1920s "hot jazz" style. It's an oddly disorienting pleasure to hear the sound of a Dixieland band, and then decipher the melody they're playing as "Love Is the Drug." The audience for this work credited to "The Bryan Ferry Orchestra" may be limited -- it's the first of Ferry's 14 solo albums not to crack the U.K.'s Top 20 -- but the response has mostly been favorable, if a bit bewildered; "as fascinating as it is perplexing" said the BBC.
It turns out, though, that the album is the result of Ferry's long-standing interest in jazz, and in the early New Orleans-derived sounds that served as his introduction to the music. And it comes as no surprise that the era's colorful history and bold, graphic style also appeal to the perpetually glamorous fashion icon. Bryan Ferry, strikingly trim and youthful at 67, was dressed conservative-casual as he sat down in a hotel room high above Central Park to talk about "The Jazz Age": He wore a simple blue sweater over an Oxford shirt, his yellow socks the lone display of sartorial flair. He is clearly energized by this charming, curious album on which his voice doesn't appear, and is enthusiastically making plans for a tour (so far planned only for Europe) that will mix these Roaring Twenties-style versions with more conventional rock renditions of his catalogue.
"I just wanted to see how the songs would stand up without the singing," he says. "It was refreshing for me. It's like taking your dog for a walk or something -- it's rather nice."
MSN Music: How did this project begin?
Bryan Ferry: For a long time I wanted to do an instrumental album, where I could showcase me as the writer rather than the singer. We were doing the Roxy Music box set this past year, and I thought maybe in tandem with that there was a good opportunity to do an instrumental record. I've been listening to a lot of '20s jazz in the last few years, so that was on my mind -- that early stuff from New Orleans like Louis Armstrong's Hot Five or Hot Seven, with King Oliver, and Duke Ellington in New York with the Cotton Club Orchestra, who did a more sophisticated, arranged thing. Those were the two main inspirations for what we did.
A lot of the guys on the album worked with me 12 years ago on "As Time Goes By," which was an album of '30s songs, so I knew that I had the players to do it. They're terrific, and they kind of live in that retro world. A lot of bow ties and fob watches.
So you've long had an interest in this particular period?
Since 1955, when I was 10 years old and I got my first records. There were two kinds of music rivaling for my attention -- because I did see Bill Haley on the first rock and roll tour of Europe. I won two front-row seats in a radio quiz, and it was the first time my name was ever mentioned on the radio! But the first jazz records I bought were English covers of Louis Armstrong, really. Humphrey Lyttelton, who had a big hit called "Bad Penny Blues," and Chris Barber was the other fellow. My uncle took me to see him and that started my foray into jazz.
From New Orleans I went on to, eventually, Charlie Parker, who was really my hero. The first EP I ever bought was the Charlie Parker Quintet with Miles Davis, and I memorized every note of those four songs. After we started with Roxy, I didn't really listen to jazz for 30 years, apart from Billie Holiday, who I always listened to. But the last 10 years, at home in the country, I started buying box sets of CDs on tours -- remember when there used to be these stores that sold records? -- and you'd find a great set of Charlie Parker or Coleman Hawkins, another huge favorite of mine.
Once you had the idea, what was the process of converting the songs into these arrangements?
The idea was all! I would talk with Colin (Good, Ferry's longtime musical director), the piano player -- I'm not good enough to play on it, I didn't even dare to suggest I'd play -- and I'd help him with the arrangements. We tried a cross-section of different things, of some songs from Roxy early, Roxy late, B.F. early and late, including one from my last album, "Olympia," which is probably my favorite track, called "Reason or Rhyme." I knew how I wanted that one to sound, I could imagine the trumpet phrasing and so on, but the others just kind of morphed. Sometimes I'd think "This is the wrong register; let's try the tenor sax instead of the clarinet." But from the first day, you just felt it was a going concern, and that it would work. I'd like to do more, I'd like to do further volumes.
More: Rediscovering Roxy Music
Did you discover anything new about the songs?
One of the surprises was "Avalon," which was done more uptempo: We tried it slow and moody and it didn't work, so it ended up as this more brisk Creole romp. I know the songs quite well, but I wasn't precious about how they could be done. I was open to "Anyone have any ideas on this one?" It was good not being on the spot to sing, to be able to focus and be in the control room.
It's a very old-world concept, the Bryan Ferry Orchestra in which Bryan Ferry neither sings nor plays an instrument. Do you find that people are able to grasp the idea right away?
It's the way to go! There is some confusion, a couple of interviews where the guy said, "What do you do?" I said, "Take the money! I wear the fur coat, with the cigar and the hat ..." But really, so far, the reaction has been incredibly positive.
You've always been so closely associated with fashion and visual style. Is that part of what appeals to you about this era?
It goes with it, very hand in hand. I think we made quite a good package with the CD, using the artwork from the period. Paul Colin, who did the illustrations, was the boyfriend of Josephine Baker -- as well as being the beginning of modern music, it was also the start of modern dancing, a very lively period. The style of the '20s was very graphic, very strong, they were really into their clothes, everybody wore hats. So the visuals fit seamlessly with the sound of the '20s, as hopefully they did with my music with Roxy, the visual things that we did fitted perfectly, same aesthetic at work.
On your last album, all of the Roxy Music guys contributed. You were playing some shows with the band, and it looked like maybe that would be the next direction you might go.
No ... it was not to be. The reunion tour we did in 2001 was great, but in the studio, I've gotten too used to picking and choosing who the musicians are for each song, being more particular that way. When you're younger, it's great being in a band because you have a shared dream, shared ambitions, you're all virtually living together. But when you get older, it starts to feel a bit odd playing with the same people every day. But I did send a copy of "The Jazz Age" to Brian Eno, because he has a co-write on one of the songs, and he said he loved it, so I'm quite pleased.
Alan Light is the co-author of Gregg Allman's best-selling memoir "My Cross to Bear." A regular contributor to MSN Music, he is the former editor-in-chief of Vibe and SPIN magazines. He is the director of programming for the public television concert series "Live From the Artists Den," and contributes frequently to The New York Times and Rolling Stone. Alan is a two-time winner of ASCAP's Deems Taylor Award for excellence in music writing.