Blues Notes

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 09 December, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 09 December, 2012, 2:21pm

As 2012 draws to a close, let's look back at the outstanding albums of the year. I'm still mulling over my list of the best and worst in jazz and blues, but I have no doubt about which is the oddest.

It is a late entry, released less than a fortnight ago, titled The Jazz Age and credited to The Bryan Ferry Orchestra. Yes, that Bryan Ferry. The Roxy Music founder and lead vocalist co-produced this 13-tune collection of instrumental versions of songs he has written or co-written for his band and his solo career.

That an artist best known as a singer should have chosen not to sing on an album released under his name is only one eccentric aspect of this release. Songs such as Roxy's breakthrough single, Virginia Plain, and later hits such as Slave to Love and Avalon, have been rearranged for a 1920s-style dance band, complete with banjo, recorded with vintage microphones and mixed to good old-fashioned mono.

Ferry, a connoisseur of 1920s jazz, cites Louis Armstrong and his Hot Seven, The Wolverine Orchestra featuring Bix Beiderbecke, the Original Dixieland Jazz Band, and The Duke Ellington Orchestra of the Cotton Club era as among the influences on these performances.

He had long wanted, he says, to do an all-instrumental project and increasingly finds the music he most likes to listen to is early jazz. "I started my musical journey listening to a fair bit of jazz, mainly instrumental, and from diverse and contrasting periods," he says.

"I loved the way the great soloists would pick up a tune and shake it up - go somewhere completely different - and then return gracefully to the melody, as if nothing had happened. This seemed to me to reach a sublime peak with the music of Charlie Parker, and later Ornette Coleman. More recently, I have been drawn back to the roots, to the weird and wonderful music of the 1920s - the decade that became known as the jazz age."

Ferry's interest in music composed before the second world war, as well as during the rock era, was apparent from his first solo album, released in 1973, onwards. These Foolish Things took its title from a song published in 1936, and subsequent collections featured tunes by Jerome Kern, Herman Hupfeld and Cole Porter.

In 1999 Ferry cut Hupfeld's As Time Goes By, a collection of Great American Songbook standards, to which he turned out to be notably better suited than several other rockers who also turned to that material for a change of career direction at around the same time.

Many of the musicians featured here - including pianist and bandleader Colin Good who helped with arrangements for The Jazz Age - were also involved in that project, and Ferry says that they all play as naturally in the 1920s styles as in later jazz idioms. Several of the tunes were cut in just a couple of takes.

Rather than model the group exclusively on any one of his favourite ensembles, Ferry and Good have tried to evoke the sounds of several, so there is a considerable amount of variation in style and mood across the record. Love is the Drug, with its growling brass and plaintively plinking banjo, recalls the dark "jungle" sound of Cotton Club-era Ellington, while Avalon gets a jaunty Dixieland treatment. The Armstrong Hot Sevens are evoked on the opener, a similarly sprightly Do the Strand.

The orchestra will tour, and in concert Ferry says he may feel inclined to sing a few of the songs.

Presented as they are here, though, a lot of his rock audience would have a hard time recognising many of their favourites. But lovers of early jazz may be wondering where those catchy 1920s dance tunes came from, and why they haven't heard them before.

Take Three

Three CD collections of the vintage jazz that inspired The Jazz Age.

  • The Original Dixieland Jazz Band 1917-1921 (Timeless, 1917-1921): the first jazz record to be issued was cut in 1917 by The Original Dixieland Jazz Band - Livery Stable Blues - and the group were important early popularisers of the music in America and abroad. This is a good collection of their most important sides.
  • Hot Fives & Sevens (JSP, 1925-1930): less lavishly packaged than Columbia's Complete Hot Fives & Sevens set, but that is out of print, and some fans rate the sound quality of this collection of the same performances as superior. It features the earliest works of genius by jazz giant Louis Armstrong.
  • Cotton Club Stomp (Naxos Jazz Legends, 1927-1931): a good collection of the Cotton Club-era Ellington band's 78 sides, and Ellington's arrangements on these seem to have been the biggest influence on Colin Good's arrangements for The Jazz Age.