|Van Morrison in 2015
Photo credit: ArtSiegel/ Creative Commons
(Cheltenham Jazz Festival. 3 May 2018. Review by Alison Bentley)
‘I just feel like I’m a singer – not in any category. But my approach is jazz as far as trying to leave enough space for something to happen in the music,’ Van Morrison once told Rolling Stone. This gig showed his jazz roots to be as deep as ever. He’s described one of his first memories as listening to a jazz band with his father, whose blues and soul record collection had a huge influence on the young Van. In the last 18 months he’s released three fine albums drawing on the jazz and blues standards repertoire, as well as his own inimitable Celtic soul songs: Roll With the Punches, Versatile and You’re Driving Me Crazy. But Morrison gigs always brings an extra dimension to the songs.
Hold It Right There (by Eddie ‘Cleanhead’ Vinson) got the jazz-blues swing going right from the start, Morrison’s punchy sax riffs sparking against Paul Moran’s trumpet. The congas lifted the swing – was that really percussionist Teena Lyle, erstwhile band member? Sonny Boy Williamson’s Help Me had a Booker T vibe from Moran’s excellent Hammond. Throughout the gig he leapt back and forth from trumpet and flugel to Hammond, with occasional forays into keyboard. The King Pleasure/Lester Young song Symphony Sid took me back to Morrison’s 90s recording at Ronnie Scott’s with Georgie Fame. The audience particularly appreciated the tricky vocalese from soul-to-bop vocalist Dana Masters. Instrumental solos were always short, like tiny jazz haikus. The dark St James Infirmary had 60s tremolo guitar from Dave Keary recalling Morrison’s time with Them.
Like Ray Charles, Morrison has often incorporated gospel into his sound. Charles’ I Believe to My Soul opened the full power of Morrison’s voice; there was an uncompromising, tough intensity in his tone that made his singing emotional, but never sentimental. In the upbeat shuffle of Sister Rosetta Tharpe’s How Far From God, Morrison’s vocal phrasing bounced off Moran’s boogie piano.
Morrison has always had a great sense of swing and jazz phrasing. The standards were impassioned then intimate, underpinned by Paul Moore’s double bass: The Party’s Over and I Get a Kick Out of You. Let’s Get Lost was considerably more defiant than the Chet Baker classic (‘Let’s get crossed off everybody’s list’ stood out!) the voice repeating the title phrase emphatically across the beat. His own Moondance has in turn become a much-loved jazz standard.
It was particularly during his own songs that Morrison electrified the band with his voice and presence, the way Miles Davis did. (Coincidentally, the melody of Spanish Steps hinted at Miles’ take on Rodrigo’s guitar concerto.) There were two classic Morrison themes: a powerful sense of nostalgia (Magic Time,) and the desire to recreate emotional experiences in a song: Wild Honey and In the Afternoon. The latter extended into a meditative coda where Morrison imagined looking down from a hilltop. It was one of those moments you hope for in a Morrison gig, where you feel as if you’re part of something bigger than yourself. Did Ye Get Healed? he sang, among irrepressibly uplifting vocal riffs. He often directed the band, using extreme dynamics for emotive effect; ‘Keep it right there,’ he told them in Broken Record.
There were two songs from his iconic 1968 album Astral Weeks. It was a reminder that he’s been working with jazz musicians from the start: the original album involved, for example, musicians from the MJQ and Mingus’, Eric Dolphy’s and Max Roach’s bands. Young Lovers Do had the loose feel of the original and evocative horn lines. Ballerina had a delicate acoustic guitar solo from Keary, and lush vibes from Lyle. In Morrison’s poetic lyric, ordinary actions seemed to assume portentous significance: ‘Step right up…ring the bell.’ He stepped offstage to massive applause, leaving the band to play the superb long solos they’d been saving up all evening (notably Mez Clough on drums.) As Sir Van used to sing, ‘Didn’t I come to bring you a sense of wonder?’ At 72, his voice sounded as rich and distinctive as ever, and full of jazz-infused energy