May 5, 2016

Van Morrison - Astral Weeks (1968)

Who would have thought the next closest thing to Marvin Gaye would be the singer for some Irish garage rock band? Morrison's songwriting deserves its fame; quite powerful imagery that takes no shortcuts to get to your sentiments. Due to the lyrical topics and some of the instrumentation, some ignorant people might throw the "british folk" blanket over this album and walk away, but Astral Weeks is so much more than some Irish folk. Morrison is pioneering and excelling at his own brand of soul music. Even though his voice is rough and unrefined compared to somebody like Marvin, it easily skates on top of the breathtaking backing arrangements. Astral Weeks isn't just Van Morrison with a handful of random instrumentalists either; he handpicked some of the most accomplished forefathers of modern jazz. Jay Berliner is the accompanying guitarist; jazz fans my age might recall his appearance on Mingus' The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady, but he also worked with many other big bands and vocalists. Connie Kay, the second drummer for the Modern Jazz Quartet, plays as well as Warren Smith, a prominent funk and free jazz vibraphonist in the late 60s and early 70s. Most notably, however, is the appearance of bass legend Richard Davis. Yes, the same guy that I compare every bassist to in my jazz reviews; and yes, that guy that played on Out To Lunch. Alongside Mingus, he is the most distinctive and vocal bassist I've ever heard, and in true Mingus fashion, he takes no backseat despite the low tones of his instrument. He essentially works as the second conductor and second voice for the album. I'm always shocked to remember Astral Weeks was recorded in '68, and while it's not Pet Sounds or Sergeant Pepper's in terms of arrangement size, the genre-fusing innovations here must have been pretty mind blowing to hear at that time. It's pretty damn mind blowing to hear now. Impressionistic, yes, but overly abstract, no. Astral Weeks is the perfect balance of softness and intensity to reach everybody.