I have just listened to Jazz — with headphones — about ten times in as many days. I haven't focused on the album this intently or intensely for probably forty years. For a lot of that time I relied on a copy of the 1994 reissue played on a cheap CD player that is itself now twenty years old. This time I am listening to the 2011 reissue streamed from Amazon Music via my iPhone and using some fairly decent (£120-ish) Sony headphones I have just bought. I also had my copy of the official Complete Illustrated Lyrics book to hand.
A few random thoughts, then, one or two of which pick up on things said earlier in this thread.
I always thought of Jazz as a 'cold' album — and still do. That is obviously to do with how I respond to the music and the lyrics, but maybe the packaging has something to do with it too. Consider News of the World: the artwork is bold and dramatic, and Queen fans are literally part of the spectacle. Now Jazz: the concentric circles motif itself is completely abstract and the album's dominant colours are black and white — there's no warmth or immediate connection there for the listener. The wide-angle photo across the gatefold adds to the sense of distance and apartness. Have I been linking this in my mind to the fact that Jazz was their first album recorded abroad?
And then there's the bicycle race poster, which couldn't be more different — brightly coloured on cheeky pink paper. That jarring juxtaposition is reflected in the music too. Thirteen songs — at least one too many — and a smorgasbord of styles. Yes, it shows the band's range and musical dexterity, but there's no common or unifying theme to hold it all together. You can argue that Sheer Heart Attack is no different. Agreed. But it was somehow perfect back in 1974, after the sound and fury of Queen II. And A Night at the Opera was their Sgt Pepper. Jazz is more like the White Album, the sound of four individuals heading in different directions. Freddie, for example, is only really present for one and a bit songs on the second half of the original side two.
Roger's two contributions sound like home demos, as do his two songs on News of the World. Earlier Roger tracks like Drowse and I'm In Love With My Car sound much more like collective band efforts — and are better for it. Fun It, in particular, is sparse and austere, like much of the electronic music that became popular a year or two later, replacing 'real' instruments with synths, drum machines and the like.
Ending an album called Jazz with "Gimme no more of that jazz" is a bit of an own goal. Don't Stop Me Now should have closed the album, with Freddie's vocal soaring away into the ether. My favourite lyrics on Queen albums are often ones written by Brian, but the standout lines on Jazz are mainly to be found in Freddie's songs. There's nothing like the elegance of Lily of the Valley or the passionate intensity of Death on Two Legs, but Bicycle Race (the banal chorus apart), Let Me Entertain You and Don't Stop Me Now fizz with the same tongue-in-cheek humour as Bring Back That Leroy Brown and Seaside Rendezvous. And Mustapha is just a delicious slice of left-field nonsense.
I realise that over the years I have been mishearing one or two lines — "We got the best chairs" rather than "We got the pleasure chest", for instance. The original vinyl album didn't include lyrics, of course, though fan club members were sent a poster with the lyrics on them. I think those same lyrics are used in the official book — complete with errors. The handwritten/typed lyrics reproduced in the book usually reflect the actual words sung. I'm still not sure whether Freddie sings "across the wire" or "across the water" during Fat Bottomed Girls. And is it "funks for free" or "fun's for free" in Fun It?
Dreamers Ball, Dreamer's Ball or Dreamers' Ball? Whichever, I'd have left it off the album and used it as the b-side of Don't Stop Me Now.
My headphones are advertised as 'Extra Bass'. The sound definitely seems fuller, and I can hear a lot more of what John and Roger are up to in the background. Jealousy, in particular, sounds like a completely new mix to my ears. I'm still not convinced that Brian's guitar suits the song, though. On the other hand, the multitracked guitars in If You Can't Beat Them and Dead On Time are terrific. Dead On Time, in particular, is just crying out for better production: the initial guitar after the opening flourish is too quiet (there's a similar problem in Fat Bottomed Girls — the bass drum and handclaps are louder than the guitar in the right-hand channel), the drums sound tinny and the ending is a bit of a mess.
As much of the above sounds critical, I should be clear that I don't dislike Jazz. It was the first Queen album I bought on day of release, and so I have many fond memories of it. Nevertheless, it was easily the weakest of their albums to that point. It also confirmed that News of the World wasn't a one-off and that the era of 'Classic Queen' — the extravagant production, layers of harmonies and instruments etc — was over.