Bryan Ferry makes an orchestral dare

Once considered progressive rock, Bryan Ferry had led his seminal 70s-80s band Roxy Music to play jazz-like arrangements all along. It’s no surprise that this tireless innovator has converted some Roxy Music songs into a new instrumental experiment, an album of instrumentals titled The Jazz Age performed under the name The Bryan Ferry Orchestra.

He re-presents Roxy Music material as if a phantom band had first laid down the tracks in a 1920s recording studio, a bit tinny yet still exquisite. On “Do the Strand” the overture is very different from the original that worked listeners up to the spontaneity and exuberant impudence of 70s pop. This is a historic reinvention. Ferry reinvigorates his own considerable oeuvre. “Do the Strand,” the greatest modernist dance anthem (meaning, it knowingly presents itself as a song in the tradition of dance songs) is taken a step higher by being linked to a period of dance mania that preceded the ones Ferry listed in 1973. That 70s excitement returns as a confirmed love and genuine art.

Ferry the jazz ageThe Bryan Ferry Orchestra is, obviously, his corps of players. But it must also include those listeners who have thrilled to the inventiveness of Roxy Music and of Ferry’s solo albums with brilliant covers of other people‘s songs. We understand the timeless connectivity of these pop classics done as Jazz Age classics. We understand the things about culture that Fitzgerald and Hemingway never found the impulse to explicate themselves. (Woody Allen disgraced it all in his abominable Midnight in Paris.)

“Just Like You,” from Roxy’s magnificent Stranded is hypnotically revamped in ways that confirm the original’s beauty. The delicacy of clarinet piping and quiet saxophone wailing add to the song’s plaintiveness. You know it—you feel it—without words to guide you. The emotion, the swaying, gentle grace is in the sound. Old but ever new. “The Only Face” features that ambient sound before technology became insanely immaculate and recording apparatus captured the reality of a moment–what audio technicians called “room tone”–to coalesce with the texture of music-making: the sound of life.

Tooting horns take all the drama out of the operatically dramatic “Slave to Love,” a track almost Wagnerian in its submissive oblivion. Now it’s a jaunty ode to generosity of feeling—sacrifice and compromise, the two most difficult human emotions conveyed with awesome ease. The Jazz Age presents Ferry’s artistry as sufficient to join the ingenuity and suavity of the 20s. Hip-hoppers and club-hoppers don’t know what Ferry and Louis Armstrong knew: that you could put a world of experience in two minutes, not an hour and a half of an overstuffed CD.

The Orchestra’s remake of “I Thought” is astoundingly daring, turning a dramatic look at the abyss into a ditty. Profundity is hidden beneath casual-sounding insouciance. It is less a reiteration of the original’s meaning than a tribute to the hidden depth of past musical style we might have forgotten how to appreciate. Here, the absence of Ferry’s lyrics is a wonderful relief; it frees the song and, through memory, allows it to soak into one’s consciousness. Call this unusual effect A Fan’s Delight.

In “Reason or Rhyme” Ferry combined the existential and the romantic—as is always his wont, although never before so raw. Here, his passion and profundity are elegantly tuned (brief and poignant) without losing feeling. It stops short, before epiphany, but in time to respect your intelligent response to sensitivity.

The roaring horn on “Virginia Plain” is comparable to the original’s rule-breaking, modernist reorganization of form and content, history and Now. Here it sounds new which is remarkable for a song that always sounded inspired by the right-now and imperishable.

On “This Island Earth,” Ferry reminds us of how special that track was in explicating his Camus-like realizations and Cocteau-like ardor, aligning them with his sexual sensitivity learned from unembarrassed Pop. It is this twice-inspired expression—romanticism plus sci-fi agape—that gave Roxy Music its greatness.

But the very fact of The Jazz Age’s nostalgia –plus-innovation pays tribute to Ferry’s humility—his love pop music, even when “pop” means early 20th century (as on his non-pareil As Time Goes By). The album’s slow-drag horn charts are signs of human effort and human expression.

The poet Geoffrey Jacques says each track “sounds like wonderfully re-imagined ideas of 1920s songs. At first hearing, they don’t sound much like Jazz Age songs. They sound like somebody’s dream of what Jazz Age songs might have or should have sounded like. But it’s a believable dream, if there is such a thing, and that’s much harder to pull off than playing the old songs well, which is hard enough.”

True dat. I know the measures of Roxy Music’s “Avalon” by heart. I didn’t know I did until this Jazz Age arrangement. Until now I also did not know how romantically apt was the phrase “by heart.”