Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Van Morrison: Astral Weeks

When a friend offered an invitation, somewhere around 1985 or so, to go to a Van Morrison concert, this blogger hadn't been all that aware of the Irish musician's work, although you couldn't listen to a rock station without hearing, with regularity, classic songs like Them's "Gloria," or Morrison's "Brown Eyed Girl" "Domino" or "Moondance."

The concert proved to be an excellent one, with Morrison singing well and working with a fine, tight band.  The big surprise, though, was having Mose Allison as the opening act.  Not having been at all familiar with Allison's work, his performance was fantastic and fun.

To get familiar with what Morrison was doing at the time, his new album, "A Sense of Wonder" was purchased and it proved to be very enjoyable.  But, the next acquisition went far beyond that--1968's "Astral Weeks" was basically revelatory.

Coming on the heels of the major success of "Brown Eyed Girl" and a major spat with the Bang record label, the record, released by Warner Brothers, was a determined move towards something more spiritual and contemplative.  It was also unlike anything being done at the time, in terms of Morrison's lyrical content, his soulful singing, and the remarkable band assembled for the session.

In fact, it has been said that Morrison had almost no interaction with the performers on the record, which include some of the greatest jazz musicians on the planet in the amazing Richard Davis on bass and drummer Connie Kay.  Davis, for example, noted in interviews that Morrison spent most of his time in an open booth to lay down his vocals and guitar and hardly spoke to him.  Then again, Morrison has been known for being mercurial and "difficult," although it may also have been that, because he and the band members had never met and were not at all familiar with each other musically, this had more to do with the way events transpired in the studio.

Whatever happened (or didn't) in the lightning quick sessions in New York--the record was made in under two days--"Astral Weeks" is an album brimming with unusual instrumental touches and flourishes, Morrison's transcendental, mystical lyrics and passionate singing, and a cache of songs that, while not the hits that came before and afterward, are just as memorable in their own, covert fashion.

It's actually hard to call any one a standout, given the consistency of excellence on the album, but the opening title track is truly a great song, establishing a tone for the album with its folk, jazz and other instrumental elements fluidly accompanying Morrison's stream-of-consciousness lyrics--the combination leading to an ecstatic conclusion that is really something to behold.  The beautiful "Beside You," has a gorgeous melancholic opening and Morrison's powerful and affecting singing reaches emotional peaks that are quite amazing.

"Sweet Thing" has a great guitar and bas opening before Morrison comes in with another evocative vocal that harmonizes so well with the instruments, including Kay's deft use of cymbals and a swelling use of strings.  "Cyprus Avenue," reflects on Morrison's youth in his hometown Belfast and has an unusual, but highly effective, harpsichord, with, as always, Davis's gorgeous bass playing standing out.

It may be the shortest track, but "The Way Young Lovers Do" has a thrilling combination of sounds with its insistent use of strings and brass, Kay's perfect timekeeping, Davis's rich bass, and Morrison's fine melodies coming together for a stunning, if too brief, performance.  "Madame George" appears to be something of a complement to "Cyprus Avenue" in terms of its impressionistic lyrics reflecting Morrison's Belfast connotations, as well, perhaps, in terms of tempo and the richness of its instrumentation.

"Ballerina" is another languid ballad with the band playing understated behind Morrison's keening and emotive vocals, highlighted by his drawn-out enunciation of the title.  The closer, "Slim Slow Slider" was evidently something of a late inclusion to the session for timing reasons and it does have that feel, especially as the tune suddenly fades out with John Payne's soprano ranging into higher tones and Kay suddenly tapping out a quiet and fervent conclusion, indicating that there wasn't much idea of what to do with the piece to end it.  Still, it is a very intimate piece with acoustic guitar, a soprano sax and Morrison's singing and it is very effective.

Credit should also be given to producer Lewis Merenstein, who had an extensive jazz background for Warner Brothers, and who evidently was moved to tears by Morrison's demos and then came up with the idea to pair the singer with the great Richard Davis.  Merenstein then brought in Connie Kay, guitarist Jay Berliner, and percussionist and vibraphonist Warren Smith, Jr. 

In a 2008 interview, Merenstein stated that Davis was the key player on "Astral Weeks," the underpinning that held it all together and this definitely resonates for the listener, who has heard the bassist on a number of jazz records by Eric Dolphy, Oliver Nelson, Elvin Jones, Andrew Hill and others and who saw the great bassist at Catalina Bar and Grill back in the mid-Nineties.  Merenstein also has interesting things to say about Morrison's "innocence" when he went in to make the record and really not knowing what he was doing and also notes that it was his idea to label side one "In the Beginning" and side two "Afterwards," an affectation that Morrison didn't like, but that Merenstein felt reflected something reactive in his thinking about this remarkable album.  To read the interview, click here.

Van Morrison:  Astral Weeks (Warner Brothers, 1968)

1.  Astral Weeks  7:00
2.  Beside You  5:10
3.  Sweet Thing  4:10
4.  Cyprus Avenue  6:50
5.  The Way Young Lovers Do  3:10
6.  Madame George  9:25
7.  Ballerina  7:00
8.  Slim Slow Slider  3:20

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