Originally published in Spinner, March 12, 2013 3:00PM
by David Chiu
Throughout his career, Bryan Ferry has always epitomized a sense of style, cool and sophistication both in his music and onstage persona. With the legendary Roxy Music, the British vocalist produced an influential body of work from 1972′s self-titled debut record to 1982′s Avalon. In addition to his role as the leader of Roxy Music, Ferry maintained a solo career that has included interpreting popular standards and contemporary songs by artists such as the Velvet Underground, Al Green, Bob Dylan and the Beatles.
But his most recent album, The Jazz Age, which was released last November, is noteworthy for the fact that he doesn’t sing on it. Performed by the Bryan Ferry Orchestra, The Jazz Age features Roxy Music songs and Ferry’s solo material (“Avalon,” “Love Is the Drug” and “Slave to Love,” among others) reworked as instrumentals and performed by other players in the style of ’20s jazz. Even the sound of the record makes one feels like he or she is listening to a vintage recording coming out of an old phonograph.
“It’s great pleasure,” Ferry tells Spinner with a laugh about not singing on his new record. “I just wanted to put the spotlight on me as the writer or my songs rather than me as a performer. Most of the time I’m in the studio behind the desk comping, arranging things and [asking] people, ‘Can you play it like this or try it like that?’ And most of the time I’m listening to the piece as an instrumental piece. It isn’t until the very end, just before mixing, that I normally sing the song.”
Ferry says that he has always wanted to make an instrumental of his own music. “Last year we were doing the boxed set [The Complete Studio Recordings 1972-1982] to commemorate Roxy’s 40 years since the first album [Roxy Music] came out,” he says. ‘I thought it was a good time maybe to commemorate this with a kind of side project, which could be fun to do it in the jazz style. In the last few years I’ve been listening to quite a lot of Louis Armstrong’s Hot Fives and Hot Sevens, and King Oliver and early Duke Ellington stuff as well, going back to my musical beginnings as a fan. I enjoy listening to a lot of music that is different from what I’ve been recording with screaming electric guitars.”
For the recording, the musicians were in one room with central miking, like it was done in the old days, according to Ferry. As far as the song selection, he wanted a combination of well-known and obscure material from his catalog. “‘Reason or Rhyme’ I quite wanted to do,” he says, “because I could hear that in my head … as a piece from the ’20s. ‘This Island Earth’ is beautiful. I quite fancy ‘Do the Strand’ because it was such a well-known Roxy anthem. It had relied on the words — it’s word-heavy — so that was a challenge to do that. It was a very uptempo romp, kind of Dixieland. The two styles as I said earlier was the New Orleans style of Louis Armstrong and the more earthy, simple stuff. And then the more complex, sophisticated, urbane Duke Ellington era, slickly arranged but quite haunting. ‘The Bogus Man’ was something I also heard as being done in the Cotton Club style.”
Ferry says that he would love to do a sequel to The Jazz Age. “It would be nice to do more. We did some more things for the soundtrack of ‘The Great Gatsby’ [starring Leonardo DiCaprio], which is coming out in May. So there will be a couple of things in that. How much I don’t know, because they’re still editing.”
2012 marked the 40th anniversary of Roxy Music’s first album, which was quite avante-garde-sounding from the more commercial pop music of the time. “We had such a great battery of sounds,” Ferry says. “We had so many sounds to choose from, and that’s what made us different from a lot of people. We had an oboe, we had the sounds that [Brian] Eno could do on the synthesizer. It was fantastic to have all that talent together, even though we’d felt we were kind of amateurs in a professional world. There weren’t any rules to play — we just did whatever we wanted to do.”
Roxy Music would go on to record and perform live for the next 10 years, with Avalon being the final studio album in 1982. After a long hiatus, the group reunited for a tour in 2001. As for the possibility of a new Roxy Music album, Ferry indicates that it is unlikely.
“Recording-wise, I got such a great team of people,” he says. “It doesn’t have the name of Roxy Music. It’s great working with young people, and I guess some of them are a lot younger than me and the band, but it feels right for me now. I just like having the freedom to pick and choose. Marcus Miller has played on the last albums I’ve made as the bass player, he’s a genius. Nile Rodgers has played on Boys and Girls [Ferry’s 1985 solo record] onward. Those two are not in my band, but they’re people I like to [ask,] ‘Would you like to come and play on this?’ If you’re in a group, you don’t have that.”
Ferry will embark on a U.K. tour later this year that will feature members of the orchestra along with his regular band. As for his other plans, he says, “Last year, I did tour but I was in the studio and working on a new album of new stuff [with] guitars and everything else. A lot of different songs. What that will turn into, I don’t know. The idea was to get it out next October, but we’ll see if we make that date or not. They’re so many pieces, it could end up either being all covers or all originals. It might be a blend.”