Van Morrison Teams Up With Joey DeFrancesco On New Jazz Album

After almost 60 years, Van the Man shows no signs of slowing down

Van Morrison has kept pretty busy over the past few years. Since September 2016, he has released four studio albums, the latest of which, You’re Driving Me Crazy, just appeared yesterday. Think about this for a moment, how many septuagenarian music artists do you know who are as productive as Van the Man? Of course, ultimately, it should be about quality, not quantity. After having listened to this new album, I have to say I really dig it!

So, how does Morrison’s 39th studio release compare to his other albums? Frankly, given my significant knowledge gaps about his music, I can’t give a fully informed answer. I certainly like Moondance better, but I’m not sure this comparison makes a lot of sense. Is it a good jazz record? That’s another tough question for me to answer, since I rarely listen to jazz. But while this isn’t Morrison’s first jazz album and jazz has been a key influence for his music over the decades, it’s safe to assume the Belfast Cowboy isn’t on the radar screen of most hard-core jazz fans.

Van Morrison & Joey DeFrancesco

Here’s the deal, as far as I’m concerned. After having listened to music for some 40 years and as a past hobby musician who still occasionally grabs a guitar, I’m confident enough to say I know good music when I hear it. To my ears, Morrison and his partner in crime Joey DeFrancesco delivered a beautiful record that is smooth and grooves nicely throughout. While recording the tracks live in the studio, they apparently also had a lot of fun – you can literally hear laughter during and after some of the songs!

The album’s 15 tunes feature a mix of reworked jazz and blues songs like Every Day I Have The Blues (Peter Chatman), The Things I Used To Do (Eddie Jones) and Miss Otis Regrets (Cole Porter), together with new takes of orignal Morrison tracks, such as All Saints Day (Hymns To The Silence, 1991), The Way Young Lovers Do (Astral Weeks, 1968) and Close Enough For Jazz (Too Long In Exile, 1993). Morrison shares writing credits for Evening Shadows with Bernard Stanley “Acker” Bill, an English clarinettist and vocalist  who passed away in November 2014. He first recorded the tune with Bill for his 2002 studio album Down The Road.

With DeFrancesco, Morrison selected a heavy hitter. Over a now 30-year professional career, the 47-year-old American jazz organist, trumpeter and vocalist has worked with the likes of Miles Davis, David Sanborn, John McLaughlin and Ray Charles. I love DeFrancesco’s playing on the album, especially his work on the Hammond organ. According to Rolling Stone, it was also DeFrancesco who put together the backing musicians for the recording sessions: Dan Wilson (guitar), Michael Ode (drums) and Troy Roberts (saxophone). I’d say the time has come for some music!

The record opens with Miss Otis Regrets, a relaxing jazz standard composed by Cole Porter in 1934. The piece is a testament to Morrison’s apparent appreciation of old jazz.

The Way Young Lovers Do takes Morrison back all the way to 1968 and his second studio album Astral Weeks, which I understand is widely considered to be one of his best records. I think this new version presents a nice slightly smoother take, though one certainly needs to consider the whooping 50 years that separate the two recordings.

Another great cover is The Things I Used To Do. Originally, this 12-bar blues tune was written by Eddie Jones, better known as Guitar Slim, and released in 1953. By the way, the producer was then-23-year-old Ray Charles. I like how Morrison and DeFrancesco give the tune a nice jazz feel that makes you want to snip your fingers. The tune is a great example of DeFrancesco’s ace work on the Hammond. I also dig Wilson’s guitar-playing.

Close Enough For Jazz originally was recorded by Morrison as an instrumental for Too Long In Exile, his 22nd studio record from 1993. This new version is a tick faster and more immportantly adds vocals, a nice take.

Everyday I Have The Blues is a blues standard by John Chatman, also known as Memphis Slim. The American blues pianist, singer and composer first recorded the tune in 1947. In addition to Morrison, many other artists covered the song, including B.B. King, Elmore James and Fleetwood Mac during their blues days with Peter Green.

The last track I’d like to highlight is Have I Told You Lately, a Morrison tune he first recorded as a ballad for his 19th studio album Avalon Sunset, which appeared in 1989. Admittedly, until now, I only had known the Rod Stewart version from his 1993 Unplugged…And Seated album. Morrison’s new take speeds up the original and gives it a jazz groove. The updated version also uses a female backup singer whose name I haven’t been able to find. But she surely sounds great, as do the Hammond and the horns.

This post wouldn’t be complete without some commentary from Van The Man himself. During a rare phone interview with The New York Times he said, “My thing is not talking about music. It’s about doing it. Other people talk about it, and they make a living talking about it. I make a living kind of singing it and playing it. If it feels right, and it’s the right kind of vibe, then you should just go with it.” Amen to that!

Sources: Wikipedia, Rolling Stone, The New York Times, YouTube

Clips & Pix: Rod Stewart & The Faces With Keith Richards/Sweet Little Rock & Roller

While looking for clips of The New Barbarians after listening to their excellent album Buried Alive: Live In Maryland, I came across the above gem: Rod Stewart & The Faces with Keith Richards as a guest, performing an amazing version of the Chuck Berry classic Sweet Little Rock & Roller. Apparently, this footage was captured during a gig in London in December 1974.

Not only are the musicians killing it, but Stewart proves he once was a bad ass rock vocalist. The Faces consisted of Ronnie Wood (guitars, vocals), Ian McLagan (piano, organ, vocals), Kenney Jones (drums) and Tetsu Yamauchi (bass). Richards, Wood and McLagan would also become part of The New Barbarians, a band formed by Wood and Richards in 1979 to support Wood’s third solo album Gimme Some Neck.

Sweet Little Rock & Roller was first released by Berry as a single in October 1958. It is also included on his third studio album Chuck Berry Is On Top, which appeared in July 1959. Like many of Berry’s songs, Sweet Rock & Roller has been covered by various other artists over the years. I don’t believe I’ve heard a better version than the above.

Sources: Wikipedia, Setlist.fm, YouTube

When Less Is More

A list of some of my favorite unplugged performances

Do you remember when in the ’90s many music artists suddenly seemed to realize they could deliver more intimate performances by sitting down on stage with their bands and largely replacing electric with acoustic instruments? Unplugged albums quickly became en vogue. They also helped revive flagging careers of some artists, such as Eric Clapton and Rod Stewart. Undoubtedly, the television series MTV Unplugged fueled this trend.

To perform music that originally was written for electric instruments in a stripped down fashion required a good degree of craftsmanship. Gone were many of the sound effects behind which artists had been able to “hide.” While as is oftentimes the case with fashionable trends the unplugged wave may have been a bit overdone, the concept has generally appealed to me as a hobby guitarist. Following are five of my favorite unplugged performances.

I also would have loved to include the fantastic version of Hotel California by the Eagles from their great Hell Freezes Over album. But this band is very protective of their music, and even if you’re lucky enough to find a specific song you want on YouTube, oftentimes the clips are taken down, and before you know it, you have a dead link – not fun!

Billy Idol/White Wedding (VH-1 Storyteller, 2002)

Billy Idol may have been a fashion punk who became known for playing commercial music that didn’t have anything to do anything with punk. But in my opinion, he surely knew how to write tunes with catchy melodies that rocked. Undoubtedly, a major role in all of it played his guitarist Steve Stevens, who co-wrote various of Idol’s biggest hits, such as Rebel Yell, Eyes Without A Face and Flesh For Fantasy. Plus, Stevens is a hell of a guitarist, which this clip of White Wedding nice illustrates, one of the best unplugged performances I’ve seen. He continues to perform and tour with Idol to this day.

Eric Clapton/Layla (Unplugged, 1992)

To successfully strip down an iconic rock song like Layla, which in its original features fantastic guitar interplay by Eric Clapton and Duane Allman, is a formidable task. Clapton didn’t only do that, but gave the tune an entirely new character on his 1992 Unplugged album. In my opinion, the result is one of the best rock cover versions, similar to Joe Cocker’s rendition of With A Little Help From Friends by The Beatles.

Rod Stewart/Maggie May (Unplugged…And Seated, 1993)

Sometimes one may forget that Rod Stewart in his early days was a top-notch rock artist. I’ve always loved Maggie Mae, which he co-wrote with British guitarist and composer Martin Quittenton. The tune was originally recorded for Stewart’s third solo album Every Picture Tells A Story, released in May 1971. At the time, Stewart was still with The Faces. In fact, all of the band’s members played on the album. Notably, Ronnie Wood was also part of Unplugged…And Seated, Stewart’s excellent unplugged album from 1993, from which this clip is taken.

Nirvana/The Man Who Sold The World (MTV Unplugged In New York, 1993)

Nirvana’s unplugged version of The Man Who Sold The World is one of the most haunting covers of the David Bowie song I know. It was part of the band’s MTV Unplugged In New York album, which was recorded on November 18, 1993 – about four and a half months prior to Curt Cobain’s death. His almost painful singing, along with guitars that sound are out of tune, give this performance a somewhat creepy feel. It shows an artist who at the time was in the brutal throes of drug addiction and depression.

Neil Young/Like A Hurricane (Unplugged, 1993)

Like A Hurricane is one of my favorite rock tunes by Neil Young. Naturally, I was curious how he would handle an unplugged version of a song that in its initial recording is dominated by heavily distorted grunge-like electric guitar. In my opinion, Young’s performance with just an organ and a harmonica takes it to another level. The church-like sound of the organ combined with Young’s signature quavering voice induces chills and literally blows me away. Check it out yourself.

Sources: Wikipedia, YouTube

On This Day In Rock & Roll History: December 27

You’d think the time between the Christmas holiday and New Year would be dead when it comes to music. At least I didn’t expect to find much when I checked my usual sources for this feature. Well, it turns out that at least for December 27, the above notion is not exactly true.

1963: In a story titled What Songs The Beatles Sang William Mann, music critic of the UK newspaper The Times wrote, “The outstanding English composers of 1963 must seem to have been John Lennon and Paul McCartney, the talented young musicians from Liverpool whose songs have been sweeping the country since last Christmas, whether performed by their own group, the Beatles, or by the numerous other teams of English troubadours that they also supply with songs.” Only two days thereafter, Sunday Times music critic Richard Buckle kicked it up a few notches, proclaiming Lennon and McCartney were “the greatest composers since Beethoven.” Even as a die-hard fan of The Beatles, I have to say that Buckle may have had a few too many eggnogs before the wrote this!

Backstage At Beatles Christmas Show

1967: Bob Dylan released his eighth studio record, John Wesley Harding. After three electric rock-focused albums – Bringing It All Back Home (March 1965), Highway 61 Revisited (August 1965) and Blonde On Blonde (May 1966) – Dylan returned to acoustic and roots music on this album, which was recorded in Nashville. John Wesley Harding was liked by critics and fans alike. It hit no. 1 on the UK Albums Chart and no. 2 on the Billboard 200. Only less than three months after it had appeared, the album was certified Gold by the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA). Among others, John Wesley Harding includes All Along The Watchtower, which Jimi Hendrix widely popularized with his recording the following year. Here’s a clip of a Dylan live performance, which apparently was captured during a show in Italy in 1984.

1969: Led Zeppelin II, the English rock band’s second studio album, hit no. 1 on the U.S. Billboard 200. Released on October 22 that year, it was Led Zeppelin’s first record to top the charts in the U.S. and the UK. The album also became a big seller. On November 15, 1999, it was certified 12 times Platinum by RIAA. This album includes gems, such as Whole Lotta Love, The Lemon Song, Heartbreaker, Ramble On, Moby Dick and Thank You, one of my favorite acoustic Zep tunes.

1975: The Faces, one of the great British rock bands of the late ’60s and early ’70s officially called it quits. Lead vocalist Rod Stewart, who already had released six albums under his name and scored a big international hit with Sailing a few months earlier, decided to entirely focus on his solo career. Guitarist Ronnie Wood already had started recording and touring with The Rolling Stones and became an official member in February 1976. Bassist Ronnie Lane went on to form his own band, Slim Chance, while drummer Kenney Jones eventually joined The Who in November 1978, following the death of Keith Moon. Here’s a cool clip of a live performance of Stay With Me. If you ever doubted that Stewart once was a kick-ass rock & roll singer, check it out.

1980: Double Fantasy, the album credited to John Lennon and his wife Yoko Ono, reached no. 1 on the U.S. Billboard 200, where it would stay for eight weeks, while the record’s lead single Just Like Starting Over started a five-week run as no. 1 on the singles chart. Undoubtedly, the remarkable chart performance was driven by Lennon’s tragic death on December 8 that year, when he was shot at the entrance to his Manhattan apartment building by Mark David Chapman, an apparently mentally deranged former Beatles fan. Initially, Double Fantasy had been poorly received. While I’m not particularly fond of Ono’s songs, I’ve always thought the album includes some of Lennon’s greatest tunes of his solo period. Here’s a clip of one of my favorites, Watching The Wheels.

Sources: The Beatles Bible, This Day in Music.com, Songfacts Music History Calendar, Wikipedia, YouTube

What I’ve Been Listening to: The Rod Stewart Album

Rod Stewart’s first solo album proves he’s a legitimate rocker.

There are some music artists you never can go wrong with because of their great voices, even though not all of their material is top notch. Joe Cocker comes to mind. Another example is Rod Stewart.

Over his remarkable 50-plus-year career, Stewart has touched multiple genres, including rock & roll, soul, standards from the American songbook and even disco. I think he’s always been at his best when he turned to his beginnings – rootsy rock mixed with blues and soul like on his first solo album, An Old Raincoat Won’t Ever Let You Down, or The Rod Stewart Album, as it was called in the U.S. where it appeared in November 1969.

The album kicks off with a pretty cool remake – The Rolling Stones’ Street Fighting Man. The first part borrows from the Mowtown classic Dancing in the Street, while the second part sounds much closer to the Stones’ version. The song ends with the starting theme from We Love You, another Stones tune.

Another great song on the first side is Blind Prayer, a blues rock, and one of the four pieces written by Stewart. Finishing the side is the classic Handbags and Gladrags written by Mike D’Abo, who also plays the piano on the recording.

Side two starts off with An Old Raincoat Won’t Ever Let You Down, another Stewart composition. The other standout on that side of the album is Dirty Old Town, a song written by English folk singer Ewan MacColl and made popular by The Dubliners in 1968.

When Stewart recorded his debut, he was still with The Faces, a band formed in 1969 when he and Ronnie Wood left The Jeff Beck Group to team up with the remnants of The Small Faces. So it’s perhaps not a surprise Stewart got a little help from his band mates, namely Wood (guitar, bottleneck guitar, bass guitar, harmonica) and Ian “Mac” McLagan (piano, organ), though he is not credited on the record sleeve. Among the other musicians are Keith Emerson, who played organ on I Wouldn’t Ever Chance a Thing, and Jeff Beck Group drummer Mickey Waller.

Stewart’s debut release climbed to no. 139 on the Billboard 200 album chart and received positive reviews. Rolling Stone called it a “superb album” and AllMusic rated it 4.5 out of 5 stars. Robert Christgau who by his own admission had a strong prejudice against Stewart gave the album an A-.