Words by Mr Dan Cairns
Each time I meet Mr Bryan Ferry, I itch to ask him a certain question. Not about his music - which he has been bewitching and beguiling us with for 40 years now, a milestone the singer is celebrating with the release of The Jazz Age, an album of new versions of his songs, both Roxy Music and solo, retooled as lost classics from the roaring 1920s. No, the question I always intend - and, hopelessly fail - to ask Mr Ferry is about a particular colour, and its key, but infinitesimally subtle, variations. For this is a man whose everyday wear will, more often than not, feature a navy suit, a matching tie, and a shirt of the palest blue. But not any old navy, or any old pale blue. That's the point. And I want that suit, that tie, and I want that shirt, too - and want to ask Mr Ferry where I can find them. You see, his suits and ties are in a navy that is never merely dark blue yet isn't quite black, either. Similarly, his shirts are neither precisely white, nor verging on grey: they contain a passing hint of blue - barely there, but sartorially just so. The combination is, on Mr Ferry, always, always, a maddeningly immaculate one.
When I'm writing a song, I'm very much on my own. That first stage is a kind of lonely one, where you're wrestling with your demons
Predictably, when we meet again - amid the aptly restrained and nonchalant elegance of the Home House private members club in central London - I again fail to ask Mr Ferry about the colour blue. (I suspect I remain tongue-tied because I cannot bear the thought of him gazing down from those lazy eyelids, an expression of pity on his face, as if to say: "You mean you don't know?") I ask him, instead, about The Jazz Age, and the period in the 20th century after which his new album is named. A man whose attention to detail borders on the obsessive - "Oh, it does," Mr Ferry chuckles, "but it's an approved obsession, if you like" - was always going to pay attention to an album sleeve. The cover images and artwork for all of his releases seem to have gone through some sort of rigorous taste test before passing muster, and so it proves with The Jazz Age. Featuring a detail from the Tumulte Noir series by the renowned French poster artist, and lover of singer, dancer and actress Ms Josephine Baker, Mr Paul Colin, it encases a sequence of songs that slip gracefully and evocatively into their new, big-band jazz settings: "Love is the Drug" becomes an even woozier and more louche affair than the original recording; "Do the Strand" a sort of narcotised Charleston; while dovetailing woodwind makes "Avalon" somehow even more forlorn than before. Crucially, if surprisingly, Mr Ferry has elected not to sing on the album, which is entirely instrumental. Was he never tempted to amble up to the vocal booth?
From left: Roxy Music's Messrs Paul Thompson, Ferry, Andy Mackay, Phil Manzanera and Brian Eno
From left: Messrs Thompson, Mackay (kneeling), Ferry, Kenton, Manzanera (kneeling) and Eno
Mr Ferry poses during a portrait session for his album Another Place, Another Time
Mr Ferry performing at Wembley Arena
"Well, there was a bit of pressure to do so," he replies, with a wry laugh," or insinuations, at least. You know, 'Couldn't you sing on, maybe, one of them?' But the whole point of the project was to see how well the songs could stand up without words, and to put the spotlight, as it were, on the part of me that is a songwriter, rather than the guy who stands on stage with a microphone." The decision to locate the new album in the 1920s was not one, Mr Ferry admits, that he could have imagined making before. "If you'd told me 20 years ago I'd be doing this, I'd have laughed. Although I was a big jazz fan as a young lad, once rock'n'roll came into my life and took it over, I pretty much stopped listening to it. I'd been seduced, carried off by wah-wah pedals and the sound of the electric guitar." He was drawn back to the 1920s, he says, because "it's such a fascinating period - the beginning of modernism. Eliot wrote The Waste Land, Scott Fitzgerald celebrated the period in The Great Gatsby. Reading that novel was my first introduction to that age, and he was the first writer I took to as a fan of literature. I mean, I'd been forced to read Milton and Shakespeare and everything else at school, but to read for pleasure was like, 'Whoa - this is the beginning of something.' I had this amazing sense of discovery." Does he ever feel as if he was born at the wrong time? "Well, Paris, Berlin, New York in the 1920s, there was so much going on. However, we don't live then, we live now. People say to me, 'Don't you wish you lived in the 1920s?', and I always go, 'No, not really.' I like the fact that I can get on a train to Paris, or fly to Berlin, and be there in two hours. It must have been fabulous to be around then, though. For a start, everyone wore hats. I don't tend to wear a hat in London, because I don't like being recognised, and people tend to [notice you] here if you wear one. I can get away with one in Paris, because it's more flamboyant there."
The artwork for The Jazz Age, comprised of illustrations by the renowned French poster artist Mr Paul Colin
Mr Ferry was in at the beginning of something himself, of course: it is impossible not to now view the period at the dawn of the 1970s - when acts such as Roxy Music and Mr David Bowie bade adieu to the previous decade and strode forth in a blaze of eyeliner, bombastic art-pop, outrageous but sharply design-savvy stage outfits and bold album imagery - as anything other than revolutionary (and, yes, liberatingly flamboyant). In Mr Ferry's case, however, there was always, alongside the restless trailblazing, a contrasting languor that was almost ennui, and a keening for more old-fashioned notions of elegance and sophistication: witness his tuxedo on the sleeve of his second solo album, 1974's Another Time, Another Place; his definitive and ineffably languid 1973 cover version of "These Foolish Things"; Mr Nicky Haslam's acute, long-ago remark that the singer would be more likely to redecorate a hotel room than wreck it; and Mr Ferry's film-star poise every time he looked at the camera, a cigarette curled between his fingers. The cigs may have gone now, but that look is still there. And, if the pace of change has slowed for Mr Ferry in the ensuing years, as it has for many of his contemporaries, he remains a man of boundless curiosity, still a "taste tarantula" (in the words of his old friend, the designer Mr Antony Price), still collecting, dissecting, sifting and, yes, redecorating - for what else is The Jazz Age but an exercise in immaculate rearrangement?
"When I'm writing a song," Mr Ferry says, as we conclude the interview, "I'm very much on my own. That first stage is a kind of lonely one, where you're wrestling with your demons, or however you care to phrase it, or looking for something new to say. Most of the time you're just thinking, 'Is this any good? Is this any different to what I've done before?'" Well, The Jazz Age is better than good, and it's certainly different.
Mr Ferry gets up to leave. Did I forget to mention what he's wearing? Oh, only a suit and tie of the most unimpeachable navy blue. And that pale, pale shirt. Damn the man.
The Jazz Age by The Bryan Ferry Orchestra is out now