As a youth, Bryan Ferry immersed himself in the “trad jazz” scene thriving in pre-Beatles England, and began a lifelong fascination with Louis Armstrong’s early combos, Dixieland and ragtime. “The Jazz Age” (BMG) is Ferry’s payback for that formative influence, but it’s one that only the singer’s most ardent fans may want to indulge.
Four decades after releasing his first album with Roxy Music, the singer sets aside his microphone and surveys his career from a 1920s point of view – aging in reverse, in a way. The period-style arrangements are performed by an octet led by Ferry’s longtime accomplice, pianist Colin Good. The ensemble incorporates the signature sounds of the era, right down to the clarinets, bass saxophones, banjos and ukuleles. Every period detail is in place, even the straw hats and flappers depicted in French artist Paul Colin’s cover art.
Ferry’s musical aim is off, though. The project tries to demonstrate the durability of his songs, to set them off as timeless melodies that remain buoyant in any context, even without his distinctive vocals. The ensemble finds the dark undercurrent in “Love is the Drug,” but sleek Roxy burners such as “Do the Strand” and “Virginia Plain” come off as creaky antiques. “Avalon” and “Slave to Love” turn inappropriately jaunty, and “This Island Earth” loses all its menace. Ferry’s best songs bubble with double-edged nuances and pastiche-style textures, drawing on influences from many eras. “The Jazz Age” diminishes that complexity, turning many of these brilliant tunes into period caricatures.