INTERVIEWS, REVIEWS & RELATED ARTICLES
"Craft is what enables you to be successful
when you're not inspired." - Brian Eno
New York Times FEBRUARY 11, 2013 - by Allan Kozinn
ROXY MUSIC'S ROARING TWENTIES
Roxy Music, the British band that thrived in the 1970s, built its audience - and then lost parts of it - by creating and then quickly confounding expectations. With a lineup that included the guitar, bass and drums standard in rock, as well as the electronica pioneer Brian Eno, and a reed player, Andy Mackay, whose oboe and saxophone lines gave the group a quirkily distinctive sound, Roxy Music often put a futuristic gloss on traditional song forms.
But the band's driving force was Bryan Ferry, its principal songwriter, lead singer and sometime keyboardist, as well as the architect (by way of his art school friend Antony Price) of the group's glamorous visual style. Mr. Ferry pursued a solo career concurrent with his Roxy work and after the band split up in 1983 (not counting reunion tours). And as a way of celebrating four decades of songwriting and performing Mr. Ferry, sixty-seven, will release on Tuesday The Jazz Age, a retrospective of sorts.
Many of Mr. Ferry's best-known songs are included, from early Roxy Music hits like Virginia Plain and Do The Strand, as well as Avalon, the title song from the group's final album, to recent solo work like Reason Or Rhyme from Olympia (2010). But there's a twist. Mr. Ferry and Colin Good, a pianist he has worked with since the late 1990s, have arranged the songs in the style of 1920s jazz, a fascination of Mr. Ferry's since his childhood in Tyne and Wear, in northern England.
He has visited this world before, on As Time Goes By (1999), a collection of standards, cast in the style of the 1930s. Mr. Ferry sang on that disc, but on The Jazz Age the Bryan Ferry Orchestra performs the songs as instrumentals. It is an odd project for a celebrated singer, but Mr. Ferry's goal was to put the spotlight on his compositions.
Mr. Ferry discussed the album during a recent visit to New York. Here are excerpts from the conversation:
You have said that you've long wanted to make an instrumental album, but why did you settle on 1920s jazz as the style of this one? Did you consider other approaches as well?
Oh, yes. Two or three years ago I might have done it as an orchestral thing, with strings. But I've been listening over the last few years to a lot of Louis Armstrong - the early Hot Five and Hot Seven things, and him with King Oliver as well. And some Ellington. Those were the chief inspirations. Louis Armstrong's things are more for discreet soloists, playing quite an earthy, improvised music. The Ellington stuff is more arranged and sophisticated, more orchestrated and more urbane. It's also very, very cool. And so on some of the songs we aimed for that kind of sound. On others we wanted a more basic, New Orleans feeling.
This is a style you first encountered as a child, isn't it?
In 1955 I was ten years old, and that's when I started hearing New Orleans jazz. There was a big fad for it in England, and possibly in the rest of Europe.
Was it typical for someone your age at that time to listen to that?
It was probably not that typical. I used to deliver newspapers, before and after school, and I had these jazz magazines, like Melody Maker, Jazz Monthly and things like that, and I'd read assiduously as I was walking down the street, learning about the music. I was just obsessed by it. So I read about it more than I listened to it, because I couldn't afford that many. But it was on the radio. There were a couple of kind of hit records. Bad Penny Blues, by Humphrey Lyttelton was one record I remember having as a 78 at home, which I bought with my pocket money. And once I listened to these English bands I wanted to go to the source, to Armstrong and the others. I ended up really being a huge Charlie Parker fan. That's where I got my love of jazz actually. And then Ornette Coleman after that. But Parker was my hero. And Billie Holiday, the singer, I never tire of listening to.
The arrangements are quite intricate. I was wondering what went into them, and how your collaboration with Colin Good worked?
Well, we discussed which songs we thought might work, then we'd play them for the band and say, "Maybe this could work," and then perhaps change the mood, or change the tempo. There were a couple of songs where the mood changed very much. Avalon, for instance, is very slow and sultry in the Roxy version, and we tried it that way, but it didn't work. When we lifted the tempo, it became a kind of Creole, Mardi Gras kind of thing, which is fabulous.
Sometimes it's down to the musicians as well, where someone would throw something in, and we'd say, "Ah, that's the way to go." Sometimes Colin would write down the chart, and it would perfectly capture, say, the Cotton Club thing, with those close-harmony clarinets. And sometimes we'd improvise our arrangements and the feel, as the musicians improvised within the song.
The disc actually has the antique sound quality you hear on old jazz reissues. Is that something you deliberately went for in the production of the album?
Oh, very much so, yes. We wanted it to sound like an old record of the period. We could have gone a bit further, because, actually, records of the period vary a lot in quality, depending upon which studio you happened to work in. But we felt people wouldn't want to listen to it if it was too crackly and distant in time. We used vintage microphones, and we had the guys all play in one room. In the old days they'd just have one microphone they all played to, and it would be down to the placement of the microphone, how much of everything they'd get. Soloists would walk up for their solo and then walk back again. But we had, like, room miking but also individual mikes in case we needed more of a particular instrument. So we tried to cover all our options. Having it sound like an old record was part of the fun.
Well, it was always a kind of Roxy anthem, Do The Strand. It was the song that, quite often, we used to close the show with. It was a pretty unusual song. It was upbeat, whereas a lot of the other songs were quite dark and melancholy. And it was my essay into Cole Porter land, lyrically. He would write about things that were current and in the news, and he used real place names, or people's names, and I was following in those footsteps. Because it's a song that relies a lot on the lyrics, it was interesting to hear it performed without them. It was cheerful, and that's something about a lot of '20s music: it did have a joie de vivre. It was that period between the wars, and there was a celebration of the newness of modern living - the beginning of broadcasting, people flying over the Atlantic for the first time, modern poetry, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Prohibition. Great fashions: women dressing quite daringly, men always in hats, tiepins. All kinds of stuff was going on. It's an interesting period.