Updated: February 11, 2013 9:05PM
The Bryan Ferry Orchestra,
“The Jazz Age” (BMG/Chrysalis) ★★★½
There’s a bit of “30 Rock” Jack Donaghy in Bryan Ferry. Both men are shrewd titans of their industry. Both are up for an occasionally crazy or foolishly romantic whim. If you asked Ferry why he seems to be always wearing a tuxedo, I suspect his response would be similar to Donaghy’s: “It’s after 6. What am I, a farmer?” (If not in those precise words.)
It’s that happy chutzpah that makes a gimmick like this album so successful — a success that’s extra-extraordinary given that this is essentially a Bryan Ferry album without Bryan Ferry.
The Bryan Ferry Orchestra is a small gang of jazz musicians, shaking out music in the jolly style of the 1920s. Ferry is not among them. The lead singer of Roxy Music, Ferry doesn’t sing on this album. “The Jazz Age” consists of 13 instrumental versions of songs selected among 11 albums, from “Roxy Music” (1972) to Ferry’s latest solo offering, “Olympia” (2010). Ferry calls himself a “director and producer” of this project. In the new promo video for “Do the Strand,” the musicians wail away on while Ferry (in a suit, sure) stands around, smiles. His primary involvement seems to be signing off on allowing Colin Good, the record’s real star, to masterfully rearrange the old tunes.
The result is utterly — in the 1920s usage of the term — gay. Each track skips and dotters and ambles along with more than a wink from Louis Armstrong and a serious compositional debt to early Duke Ellington. “Avalon,” a Roxy Music title track that tends to lie there on that acclaimed pop album, comes alive with a slightly more upbeat, horse-drawn rhythm and a riot of clarinets on the verses before everyone leans into the song’s arch refrain. The famed “Love Is the Drug” even gets new color pinched into its cheeks as a slow, mournful dirge led by a muted, moaning trumpet.
Of course, just about anything could be played in the style of 1920s jazz and sound bright and cheerful to modern ears. Ferry, however, doesn’t skimp on production. The band was recorded live in a single room with vintage microphones — and in mono. The recordings were distressed to sound aged, like a 78 rpm disc. Also, the players’ concept of old-timey goes back considerably further than the Squirrel Nut Zippers. Trumpeter Enrico Tommaso actually met Armstrong as a boy and corresponded with the legend until his death.
The only things that would make this a perfect outing were if if Ferry actually sang a tune. They had singers back then, too, Bryan, and your 1999 take on the 1930s, “As Time Goes By,” remains one of your finest vocal performances. Ferry recently told a London newspaper he thought this album would be “a cute idea,” and it is, but it transcends the gimmick.