It’s with some degree of apprehension that one approaches The Jazz Age, even as a long-time fan of their work I found myself side-eyeing the concept: EB ally Bryan Ferry decides to a radical reinterpretation of his back catalogue, both solo and Roxy Music, transforming them into 1920’s-style big band jazz numbers with great fidelity to the recording methods of the day. Sure, Roxy Music were always in thrall to their past, their records—particularly up to Siren—were full of citations to genres past…yet somehow they remained weighted towards the future. To suddenly take on such an antique genre, so disconnected from contemporary era—yet so evocative and so venerated—as to seem costume-like, seems almost like a retreat into conservatism.
Don’t be fooled. Bryan Ferry was dabbling with coke-fuelled soundtrack of the interwar years as far back as Roxy Music, in 1973, when “Bitters Sweet” was used as a penultimate track, poking out at a jaunty, tootling angle from an recordy already rendered crooked, uneven from the undiluted rush of ideas. In Michael Bracewell’s band biography-cum-dissertation much is made of the young Ferry’s early interest in jazz further compounding the notion that The Jazz Age is actually quite a fitting, left field attempt at a victory lap celebrating Ferry’s 40th year of making music. Because if there was a band who definitely didn’t need another greatest hits, it’s Roxy Music.
What of the music? The decision to record in mono and to recapture the warmth bestowed by primitive recording techniques, far from feeling like play acting, actually feels curiously refreshing to ears on leave from the Loudness Wars. Roxy Music’s musical structures, always so complex and weird, are dismantled and rebuilt into compositions that go beyond vintage folly or mere replica. What’s more, the Old World glamor so often a referenced by Ferry is rendered explicit through these versions: “Do the Strand” is, perhaps fittingly, reformatted into a seasick charleston; “Love is the Drug” sails by with all the sophistication and smarm of one of Waugh’s Bright Young Things; “Virginia Plane” is unrecognizable, massaged into a quasi-comedic vaudeville turn.
The ghosts of Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington and myriad smoked out juke joints cast long shadows over this set, and the decision of making it an entirely instrumental album is a brave one given how closely associated Ferry’s insinuating vibrato is to the music here. Much should be made of the the seasoned jazz players, sourced individually by Ferry, who do a masterful job of filling the lack with color and character, particularly trumpeter Enrico Tomasso. A strangely apt and enjoyable retread then, that not only pays tribute to these excellent songs but actually adds something new to the Roxy Music/Bryan Ferry back catalogue. Remake / Remodel indeed. ~
The Jazz Age was released on 26 November as a 10in vinyl folio editionand on 12in vinyl, CD and digital download, on BMG Rights Management.
Published December 15, 2012. Words by Louise Brailey.