WASHINGTON'S 9:30 club will be the very first stop on Bryan Ferry's tour to promote his new album, "As Time Goes By," before he takes his new repertoire of old standards to New York, London or Paris. But then, as the former Roxy Music frontman admits with a laugh, he was born in Washington.
"It was Washington CD -- County Durham," he explains. "In the north of England. That's where the Washington family originated. Then they moved to the south of England, to another Washington, which is very near where I live now, in Sussex. I can't get away from Washington."
The son of a coal miner, Ferry used art school and glam-rock to remake himself as an icon of old-time elegance. So it's not too surprising that his latest album features songs by such venerable sophisticates as Cole Porter, Rodgers and Hart, Jerome Kern and Kurt Weill.
"It's something I've always wanted to do, ever since the early '70s," Ferry says by phone from Britain. "The title track of my first solo album, `These Foolish Things,' was from those years, and then the following year I did `Smoke Gets in Your Eyes,' so I've delved into the period before. I've enjoyed doing standards from that era.
"I thought it would be nice one day to do an album completely of that stuff," he says, "and finally I've done it. They're wonderful songs. It's been a pleasure to make, much more than is normally the case."
Recording is frequently laborious for Ferry. It's been five years since his last album, "Mamouna," and he estimates that his next collection of new material won't be ready for more than a year.
"I didn't feel I was going to get that album ready for this year," he says, "so I thought I'd have a break from it and do this project, which I already dabbled in. It's worked quite well for me in the past to alternate between working on my own stuff and other people's material."
To simplify recording and cut costs, Ferry built a home studio, but when making "As Time Goes By" he used it only for rehearsals. "I'm more set up there for the rock stuff," he says. "It's good to get away from that kind of thing, from drum programs, computers and God knows what else, to where you just had instruments playing off each other."
To do that, Ferry and co-producer Rhett Davies went to London's Lansdowne Studios. "It specializes in orchestral and jazz work," the singer says. "It's an old-fashioned studio, with wonderful old microphones and a big live room. It was ideal for the job at hand. We found ourselves tending to mike things from a distance, to try to get the sound of the band, rather than close-miking."
The basic tracks were recorded live, which was possible because "I was very fortunate to find these great jazz players in London who can play very convincingly in that style. Brushes on the drums instead of heavy rock rhythms. It felt like a breath of fresh air for me."
To croon such tunes as "September Song" and "Miss Otis Regrets," Ferry didn't change his style significantly. "Maybe you don't sing as hard," he muses. "It's the first acoustic album that I've made. It's much easier to hear what the voice is doing. I guess the vocals are more upfront than they normally are on my records."
Finding the right place for his vocals can be difficult in the layered, multi-tracked mixes of his other albums, Ferry admits. "Usually you paint yourself into a corner. That of course didn't happen on this album, because the vocal is there from the beginning. It's been a refreshing change of procedure."
Recorded with a basic band sometimes supplemented by horns and a string quartet, "As Time Goes By" doesn't dramatically reinterpret the material in the manner of Ferry's other albums of covers, which began with 1973's "These Foolish Things" and continued through 1993's "Taxi."
"I haven't tried to reinvent each song," he says. "I've kept pretty much to the original tunes and done it in a period style. I couldn't resist with one song, `I'm in the Mood for Love,' doing that with electric guitar, which is actually Phil Manzanera from Roxy."
The other unexpected timbre is that of the ondes martenot, an obscure electronic instrument. "I was explaining to Colin Good, the arranger, the sort of sound I wanted in one of the solos, and he said, `It sounds like an ondes martenot is what you need.' It's a keyboard synthesizer from the 1930s, used in avant-garde performances in Paris at that time. It's a bit like a theremin, used in early science-fiction movies, apparently. I had never even heard of it." Ultimately, four of the album's tracks employed the antique synth.
Equally vintage are the '30s fashion illustrations that grace the CD's cover and booklet, which come from the singer's personal collection. "I'd had one of the drawings framed, and I was pondering it as I wondered what to do for the album. I realized it was perfect. It seemed to fit the mood of the songs very well."
The fashion drawings are not actually typical of his collection, however. "It's usually British art from the first half of the century, from 1900 to 1945. Which is a very interesting period. Wyndham Lewis, the Bloomsbury Group."
Ferry's touring band will have 13 musicians, the size of the largest complement of players on "As Time Goes By," and will accompany the singer performing songs from the album as well as ones from Roxy Music and his solo career. "It's the biggest band I've taken out. It's going to be really fascinating for me, to see if it works," he chuckles. "So far I'm pleased with how the Roxy material sounds with this lineup."
Curiously, 9:30 is the only club on a U.S. itinerary that favors small theaters. Ferry concedes he's not sure how the various venues will work. "It's such a mix of material that it'll be interesting to see what works where," he says. "I'll tell you after the first week of the tour."
BRYAN FERRY -- Appearing Wednesday at the 9:30 club. * To hear a free Sound Bite from Bryan Ferry, call Post-Haste at 202/334-9000 and press 8111. (Prince William residents, call 690-4110.)