A Tour of Van Morrison's Jazzy Side in Honor of New 'You're Driving Me Crazy' Album
Today, Van Morrison released his 39th album You’re Driving Me Crazy, a collaboration with organist and trumpeter Joey DeFrancesco. The album follows a grand Van The Man tradition over the past couple of decades; it’s a grab-bag of originals and standards that generally focuses on one element of Morrison’s sound. In this case, we’re in for a little jazz.
Morrison, who grew up as a Northern Irish white kid obsessed with black American music, was first exposed to jazz music at a precocious age. This was partly due to Van’s broad-minded father, George Morrison, who exposed Van to nearly every variation of American music via his record collection. Jimmie Rodgers, Woody Guthrie, Mahalia Jackson and Hank Williams were all thrown into the same context as Charlie Parker -- and it fed Van’s omnivorous vision.
After his stint as frontman of the R&B garage rock band Them, Van Morrison went on to hone his own musical vision, which paid no attention to the differences between gospel, jazz, blues, folk, country and rock & roll. In an astonishing, zigzagging career that’s been chugging along for five decades, Morrison’s touched on all those points in his sound, but never lost sight of his jazz side. And the singer may have explained it best himself in his song “Goldfish Bowl,” for his somewhat controversial first album on the vaunted jazz label Blue Note Records -- “I’m singing jazz, blues and funk/ Baby, that’s not rock n' roll/ Folk with a beat/ And a little bit of soul.”
In honor of the release of You’re Driving Me Crazy, here are 10 examples of Van Morrison letting his jazz influences take the wheel.
“Beside You” (Astral Weeks, 1968)
While Van Morrison’s second album Astral Weeks dreamily blurs the essences of jazz, blues, folk and poetry, “Beside You” is the most Astral Weeks-y song of them all. It’s jazz in that Bobby Hutcherson way, where any sort of beat disappears and the instruments simply hang in an alien, narcotic ether. It’s a stunningly beautiful canvas for Van to spit his “out” poetry -- “The dynamo of your smile caressed the barefoot virgin child/ To wander” -- in which he suggests archetypal devotion. One almost pictures William Blake sitting in at Rudy Van Gelder’s studio, but “Beside You” suggests a space where logical analysis gives way to pure feeling, to muscle memory. To never ever wonder why at all.
“Moondance” (Moondance, 1970)
Much like Neil Young retreating from the success of “Heart of Gold” to record inaccessible follow-up music about mortality and destruction, Morrison had “headed for the ditch” from his hit “Brown Eyed Girl” with Astral Weeks. And in definitive proof that we live in an unfair universe, Weeks flopped hard commercially. According to his biography No Surrender, Morrison had to make his next move with the bottom line in mind: “I had to forget about the artistic thing because it didn't make sense on a practical level. One has to live." Morrison then embraced a more commercially viable sound and recorded the very jazz Moondance, which found the audience he needed without losing an ounce of his music’s intoxicating qualities. The heavily swinging title track is a fantabulous example.
“Fair Play” (Veedon Fleece, 1974)
Sparse, mystical, loose and featuring a fantastic cover sleeve of Van with two Irish Wolfhounds, Veedon Fleece may have ripened the best of all of Morrison’s ‘70s LPs. It’s also one of his most direct jazz flirtations, with few of the songs concerning themselves with a different band setup than you’d find on an average album by Horace Silver or Grant Green. Over 3/4 time, Morrison name-checks Oscar Wilde, Henry David Thoreau and Edgar Allen Poe over one of his loveliest, most elastic vocal performances. If you don’t believe me, then you try dividing the word “meadow” into, like, 100 syllables.
“Haunts of Ancient Peace” (Common One, 1980)
Morrison mostly put his jazzier material on time-out for the remainder of the ‘80s, opting instead for harder, funkier rave-ups for a while with guests like Ry Cooder and The Band’s Garth Hudson. By Common One, those leanings had returned a little bit, but very strangely, and this leads us to a questionable period when Van’s music seemingly got stuck in first gear. For some reason, all the excitable, hooky energy of the artist who wrote “Caravan” and “Kingdom Hall” had drained out, leaving music that was sort of like jazz but mostly slid like molasses. “Haunts of Ancient Peace” is a perfect example, featuring instruments like Rhodes organ and muted trumpet but mostly ending up a beatless and lethargic mass, the musical equivalent of a melted chocolate bar. Still, if you’re in a very peculiar mood, this low-BPM stew still really hits the spot.
“All Saint’s Day” (How Long Has This Been Going On?, 1995)
It was sometime around the ‘90s that Morrison began consciously dividing up certain albums based on whether he was in a “jazz” mood, a “soul” mood, or any other musical state of mind. He also been gaining inspiration through duet records -- often splitting the difference between originals and standards -- a phase which began in earnest with this collaboration with English jazz singer Georgie Fame. Recorded live without an audience at Ronnie Scott’s Jazz Club in London, this is a serviceable bop session, with Morrison’s original “All Saint’s Day” as a highlight, if only for Fame’s Hammond B-3 snaking through it.
“News Nightclub” (Tell Me Something: The Songs of Mose Allison, 1996)
Morrison seemed so inspired by How Long Has This Been Going On? that he followed it with another Georgie Fame collaboration -- but this one’s a different beast. Morrison has always been an ardent fan of the witty, idiosyncratic jazz singer Mose Allison, whose outside-the-box lyrical and vocal technique are heard all over Morrison’s work. With 1996’s Tell Me Something: The Songs of Mose Allison, Morrison rose to the challenge of covering a bunch of Allison songs -- with the man himself on board, to boot. Morrison sounds way more on-task here than on the previous record, really laying into each of Allison’s quips -- “If I had a million dollars, I’d sit right down here and relax/ Go and buy myself a nightclub, write it off on my income tax.” He sounds like he’s having an absolute ball.
“Goldfish Bowl” (What’s Wrong With This Picture?, 2003)
Ever since Van recorded his legendary “revenge album” in 1968, in which he recorded 36 acerbic, barely-written sketches about skin infections and blowing his nose to fulfill a record contract, hardcore fans always eat it up when Angry Van pays a visit on record. And the underrated What’s Wrong With This Picture?, Morrison’s debut on Blue Note Records (to the appallment of jazz purists), positively flows over with grouchy gems, especially “Goldfish Bowl.” In that tune, Van vents about freaks and sycophants, and I quote: “There's parasites and psychic vampires/ Feeding on the public at large/ Projecting their shadow onto everyone else/ The newspaper barons/ Are scum of the lowest degree.” The juxtaposition of this pissy rant and the oblivious light-jazz backing is just wonderful.
“Close Enough For Jazz” (Born To Sing: No Plan B, 2012)
For mysterious reasons, Van really likes this song. Not only did it originally appear as an instrumental on 1993’s appropriately named Too Long in Exile, he resurrected it on 2012’s not-bad Born To Sing: No Plan B and then released it on a third album today with You’re Driving Me Crazy, adding new elements to the arrangement each time. “Close Enough For Jazz” is fun but trifling each time Van digs it out -- that said, it’s still an interesting example of the singer’s mutable relationship with his own catalog. Van remains completely unafraid to go back and tinker with his old compositions rather than rehashing the past.
“Look Beyond the Hill” (Keep Me Singing, 2016)
A friendly beam of light that cut through the singer’s latest rut of so-so albums he periodically trips into, Van’s sweet, autumnal Keep Me Singing is drop-dead gorgeous and his best work since… hey, take your pick. Like his best records, there are almost no genre affectations, just the warm, genial feeling left when you dispense of the musical borders, a glowing ember after the firewood’s all burned. That said, Singing does feature a couple of more specifically jazz-leaning moments, including “Look Beyond the Hill.” It’s really almost nothing, just a little swinging minor chord vamp, but like the rest of this undersung album, it’s pure comfort.
“Skye Boat Song” (Versatile, 2017)
Van released two albums in 2017, and both gazed deeply into his past and the music that began his journey. The first, Roll With the Punches, explored the blues, and was almost instantly followed three months later by this one, where he -- once again -- does a little jazz. Still, it was the latter idea that had way more gas in the tank; Punches is a little plodding and tiresome, but Versatile is energized, just light as a feather as Van moves from standards to originals with so much enthusiasm that you often forget which is which. “Skye Boat Song” is a lovely, light instrumental that recalls Dave Brubeck. On the jazzy album it belongs to, Van’s not reinventing the wheel, but he hasn’t had to in almost half a century; he’s simply doing the music.