Interview: Bryan Ferry talks about ‘The Jazz Age’

When you think Bryan Ferry, you probably think white tuxedo, Jerry Hall, that beautifully fragile croon and pop/art gems such as ‘Love Is The Drug’ and ‘Let’s Stick Together’ – you probably don’t think jazz.

But look deeper into his career and there are many hints of a latent jazzophilia, from Andy Mackay’s snaky soprano lines with Roxy to David Sanborn’s rhapsodic breaks and Marcus Miller’s flowing bass lines on the multi-platinum solo album Boys And Girls. Not forgetting Ferry’s 1999 collection As Time Goes By which ingeniously re-imagined the Great American Songbook.

Now he’s gone the whole hog and released The Jazz Age which takes Roxy and solo classics and filters them through a remarkably faithful Roaring Twenties jazz style, in mono, with one quite considerable twist – he doesn’t sing on the set. But he handpicked the players, co-arranged the music and chose the repertoire.

He also recently provided some of the soundtrack to Baz Luhrmann’s ‘The Great Gatsby’, so it’s a very busy time in the Ferry camp. I caught up with Bryan as he was preparing for his appearance at the 2013 Love Supreme festival, his live debut fronting The Bryan Ferry Orchestra.

What was the impetus behind The Jazz Age and how did you choose the material?

I had wanted to do an album of instrumental versions of my songs for some time, and I thought that doing it in the jazz style of the 1920s would be a cute idea. Throughout my career, the focus has been on my voice, while my role as songwriter has taken a backseat. I’ve long wanted to see how these songs would stand up on their own – I believe a great song can be reinterpreted in many ways. I feel these songs have been given a new life, a life without words… As for choosing the material, I liked the idea of The Jazz Age being a kind of compilation. With this in mind, I wanted the album to cover all aspects of my career, both with Roxy and as a solo artist.

The record features some stellar UK players including Alan Barnes and Enrico Tomasso – how did you choose the personnel?

I had worked with most of the musicians previously on As Time Goes By, and found that they could also play perfectly in the style of the 1920s. Colin Good plays a huge part in the success of this record as bandleader, pianist and arranger. I worked closely with him on these arrangements and his detailed knowledge of the period was invaluable. I really enjoyed working ‘behind the scenes’ as director and producer. Trumpeter Enrico Tommaso actually met Louis Armstrong as a young lad and corresponded with him until his death. Richard White plays clarinet and also bass saxophone, a rare instrument to hear nowadays. Robert Fowler plays some beautiful tenor sax on the record, and Malcolm Earle-Smith trombone. Although the songs are arranged, there is plenty of freedom for individual expression for each player which of course is the true nature of jazz.

How much of the album will you performing at The Love Supreme and will you be featuring the same musicians?

I like to retain a certain element of mystery when it comes to these things… But yes, the whole orchestra will be playing, and the set will be a mixture of songs played by the jazz guys, and then my rock band will join in.

You’ve just contributed some music to ‘The Great Gatsby’ soundtrack including an amazing version of Amy Winehouse’s ‘Back To Black’ – how did that come about?

I’m a great fan of F Scott Fitzgerald’s, and when I heard Baz Luhrmann was making a modern version of ‘The Great Gatsby’, I sent him The Jazz Age and I’m pleased to say that he liked it. He used a couple of tracks from the album in the movie and asked us to record a few new pieces as well. We re-recorded ‘Love Is The Drug’ in a more uptempo style for the film on which I’ve done a vocal. I think we have about ten pieces of music in the film and these will be on a soundtrack album. It’s been an interesting experience as I have always wanted to do music for films and hope to do more in the future.

What kinds of jazz inspired you when you were young? Was there a vibrant scene in the north-east?

I started listening to jazz in 1955 when there was a great revival of New Orleans music from the ‘20s and there were a couple of jazz records in the charts by English bands. And, as kids do at that age, I became obsessed, finding out who was who: Louis Armstrong, King Oliver, Duke Ellington, Coleman Hawkins, all the way through Charlie Parker. I saved up some money and bought The Magnificent Charlie Parker EP which seemed the coolest record in the world, very different and avant-garde. I learned every note of that record, all the solos. I can still sing them.

Your previous solo albums have featured the likes of Marcus Miller, Omar Hakim, Courtney Pine and David Sanborn – what do you jazz players being to the table when you’re recording original compositions?

The jazz musicians I have worked with have mastered their instruments to a degree where they can play anything – it is amazing to work with musicians of this standard, and usually they know instinctively what I am looking for.

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