Whilst early Roxy Music sounded ahead of its time, combining the glitz of glam with avant-garde, art school rock, singer Bryan Ferry always seemed to have one foot in the past. On Roxy Music (1972) one song was dedicated to Humphrey Bogart (‘2 H.B.’), while Another Time, Another Place (1974) saw him dressed in a white tuxedo, cigarette in hand, like an extra from The Great Gatsby. Likewise his early solo records featured stylized versions of old pop songs from his teenage years (‘Its My Party’, ‘The Tracks of My Tears’) and old jazz songs (‘These Foolish Things’, ‘Smoke Gets In Your Eyes’). More recently, Ferry revisited jazz standards to good effect on his solo album As Time Goes By (1999 ****).
The Jazz Age is a different beast altogether, and is credited to the Bryan Ferry Jazz Orchestra. The album consists of thirteen instrumental versions of self-composed songs from his various albums over the years, from Roxy Music (1972) right up to his latest solo recording, Olympia (2010). Ferry himself does not play on the album, although he co-produced the album, and presumably helped with the arrangements of the songs. The arrangements, which are credited to Colin Good, are in the style of the 1930s Duke Ellington band, complete with trumpet (Enrico Tomasso), clarinet (Robert Fowler) and trombone (Malcolm Earle-Smith). Many of the musicians on the album are members of the Pasadena Roof Orchestra, a UK band that tries to recreate the feel of the early orchestral bands headed by Ellington, Louis Armstrong and Fletcher Henderson, to name but a few. To add the authentic vibe, The Jazz Age is recorded in mono, with added echo and crackles for good measure.
So how does it stand up? Well, it’s something of a mixed bag. The opening track, ‘Do The Strand’ is superb, blessed with a natural swing that will appeal to fans of ‘traditional’ jazz. ‘Love Is The Drug’ is slowed down, with muted trumpet and trombone adding an element of sleaze that fits well with original lyric. ‘Avalon’ also works well, keeping the original samba rhythm, but substituting the late night vocal of the original for a more playful, danceable sound – hard as that is to imagine. Of the lesser-known tracks, ‘I Thought’, from 2002’s excellent Frantic, works particularly well.
Other arrangements are less successful. Virginia Plain misfires completely, whilst ‘Reason or Rhyme’, from Olympia, falls a little flat.
The biggest issue I have is not the arrangements, but the point of the project. Yes, many of these songs can be arranged for a jazz orchestra, but I would far rather hear them in their original form. Likewise the decision to offer the album in a compressed-sounding mono recording is questionable; it may make the album sound like a more authentic 1930s recording, but we no longer live in that era. Even my 1930s Ellington reissues sound better than this! Given Ferry’s notorious perfectionism, it would have been good to be offered an additional pristine stereo version, to hear the playing in all its glory.
Ferry clearly knows his jazz, and claims to have been listening to the original Ellington-style jazz since a very young age. But it would have been more interesting to hear a modern jazz band reinterpret these tunes. Or better still, hear Ferry reinterpret jazz standards as he did so well on his early solo recordings.