On Friday, for the third time in fourteen months I caught the bus to my local record store, Raves From The Grave in Warminster to buy a new Van Morrison album. When I heard it was to be an album of mainly Jazz standards I was a bit dubious. Whenever Van makes an album concentrating on just one genre of music it always divides the fans. I knew some would love it and some would hate it. That won’t worry Van though, he puts it on the table and you can eat it or leave it. I had heard some long-time fans say that they would pass on this one, even before they had heard it. As for myself, I was a bit doubtful because Van has ventured into this territory before. In the 90’s Van made two Jazzy albums, Tell Me Something and How Long Has This Been Going On?. Sadly, I think those two albums are my least favourite of all his work. Also, when I was a teenager in the 60’s this was the music I rebelled against. I wouldn’t be seen dead with a Tony Bennett album under my arm. That was the stuff our parents used to like. Another thing that bugged me recently is hearing Van referred to as a veteran Irish crooner, I hate that expression, there is a lot more to him than that. However, I was determined to listen to Versatile with an open mind.
Let’s have a look at the songs.
I have heard Broken Record played live twice recently, in Bristol and Plymouth and I can’t say I like it all that much. Other fans have pointed out to me that it is a remake of Heathrow Shuffle which appeared on the aforementioned How Long Has This Been Going On? Album of 95. Van has written lyrics for it. I think he repeats the phrase ‘Broken Record’ about 40 times during the song. I find that a bit irritating. It has had a lot of airplay recently, but I think there are songs on this album much more deserving of radio time than this one.
A Foggy Day is a song by George & Gershwin that has been recorded by dozens of people since it was written in 1937. At the end of the song Van repeats, ’A nightingale sang in Berkeley Square’, which is another song entirely. I must say it is nice to see that Alistair White & Chris White feature on several tracks on this album on trombone & sax. That suggests to me that a lot of this album was recorded over three years ago, especially with Jeff Lardner being on drums as well. Let those fog horns blow!
Let’s Get Lost is a song that first featured in the 1943 film Happy Go Lucky. One of the most famous versions was by Chet Baker who Van admired a lot. It is the title of a 1988 documentary film about Chet. I bet you Van included this song because of the Chet Baker connection.
Bye Bye Blackbird is an old song first recorded in 1926. John Coltrane once won a Grammy for an eighteen-minute version of it. Van breathes new life into it with a few skiddly bops. There is some nice keyboards by Paul Moran, trombone by Alistair and flute by Chris.
Skye Boat Song. I really like this track. In some reviews I have read, critics have wondered what ever possessed Van to record an instrumental version of this Scottish song. I think I know why. With his Ulster/Scots background Van would have been well aware of this song. I bet he used to hear it on the Tonight TV programme with Cliff Michelmore. I think the lyrics, with Bonnie boats, Skye, and sailors cry, seeped into his sub-conscious and emerged in the lyrics of Into The Mystic. If he ever performs this live I’d like to hear it segued with Into The Mystic. That would be great. Anyway, I can see this great instrumental by Van being snapped up by the Scottish Tourist Board for use in documentaries.
Take It Easy Baby. What do we have here? An original song written by Van. I don’t think it is one of Van’s greatest songs by any means, but it fits in quite nicely with the vibe of this album. Fans like me who like poring over the lyrics for deep meanings will be a bit disappointed though.
Makin Whoopee. This is another jazz standard that has been recorded by nearly everyone in the jazz world including Van’s friend Doctor John who recorded it with Rickie Lee Jones. Apparently, the title is a euphemism for sexual intimacy and a dire warning about the dangers of marriage, so be careful.
I Get A Kick Out Of You. This is a classic song written by Cole Porter. When it was first used in a film in the 30’s the lyrics had to be changed to remove the reference to cocaine. I first heard it as a hit single by Gary Shearston in the 70’s. Van’s version is great.
I Forgot That Love Existed is a Van song from his great Poetic Champions Compose album that he has re-visited to give it the jazz treatment. It doesn’t improve on the original but that wasn’t the intention. I think Van just wanted to look at it from a new angle. There is some delightful sax playing on this track.
Unchained Melody. This song has been recorded by hundreds of acts over the years, but I think the Rightious Brothers version is the one that most people think of. I don’t think anyone has sung it quite like Van though. His very emotional vocals on this version are great.
Start All Over Again. I have always thought that this is one of the lesser songs from Van’s great Enlightenment album. Maybe I wasn’t listening properly or maybe it was on the wrong album because it seems to fit into this jazz album quite nicely.
Only A Dream. This song was originally on Van’s Down The Road album. I know what some fans will say, “It’s not better than the original, so why bother?”. I think they are missing the point. It’s not supposed to be better, it’s supposed to be different. There is some terrific sax playing by Van & Chris on this track.
Affirmation. On first listen, this track was the one that grabbed me the most. It features Sir James Galway on flute. It reminds me of the great instrumentals Van used to play on such albums as Poetic Champions Compose. On Wikipedia it says this is written by Jose Feliciano. I don’t know where they got that idea from. Another track that film makers might love for soundtracks. Dig, a dig, love it.
The Party’s Over. I don’t think Van is telling us anything with the title of this song. The party isn’t over just yet. Concerts for next summer have already been announced. This song was written by Julius Styne and among those who have recorded it is Van’s old friend Lonnie Donegan.
I Left My Heart In San Francisco. I know Some people think that this song is sacrosanct, it is so associated with Tony Bennett that nobody else should record it. Well I disagree. Van has had a long love affair with San Francisco himself, even recording a live album there. His great recent song In Tiburon was inspired by San Francisco. You can sense that love for the city in Van’s chilled out version of this song which is terrific.
They Can’t Take That Away From Me. The album ends with another song by the Gershwin brothers. Among the delights in this song is some acoustic Spanish guitar played by Jay Berliner who played on Astral Weeks all those years ago.
That brings me to the end of my review. I am relieved that I like it. I know some fans will be disappointed that it isn’t a more mainstream Van album, but they will have to be patient. Van is indulging himself here and sharing his love of jazz. If some people don’t like it I don’t think he will worry too much. Don’t forget, in the slipstream of Van’s two jazz albums of the 90’s came The Healing Game so I am sure that there is a lot more great music to look forward to from Van Morrison in the very near future.
|Me being Versatile !|