How did Van Morrison’s ‘Astral Weeks’ become a born again classic?

20th June 2019
Ahead of Orphy Robinson’s jazz interpretation of this iconic 60s album at Love Supreme Jazz Festival, we take a look back at Van Morrison’s ethereal magnum opus.

Words: Harry Stott

Covering Van Morrison can go one of two ways. There’s the route of smoked-out 50-somethings on the pub circuit butchering ‘Brown Eyed Girl’ for the fifteenth weekend in succession, which, admittedly, tends to be the majority – or, there is also another way; one that understands the depth of Morrison’s work and treats it with the respect it deserves. The outcome here is much more pleasing.

Thankfully, Orphy Robinson, the Jazz multi-instrumentalist who is presenting the great Northern Irish songwriter’s seminal 1968 record ‘Astral Weeks’ at this year’s Love Supreme, falls into the latter category. A big part of this comes down to his choice of album – arguably Morrison’s finest – as its beguiling harmonies and pained, nostalgic lyrics are a fecund source of inspiration for musicians of all creeds who take the time to study it.

‘Astral Weeks’ was recorded in Boston in 1968, with Morrison in the midst of a label dispute that put a strain on his creative process. It was this taut environment, however, that we can ultimately credit for the record’s delightfully peculiar sound and message. By all accounts, the sessions were extremely tense (not surprising, given Morrison’s notoriously difficult attitude). The singer is said to have recorded his guitar and vocal parts alone, aloof and separate from the prestigious group of session musicians assembled by producer Lewis Merenstein. Morrison strummed a couple of ideas, hinted at a few chords, and let the band work out the rest for themselves. Luckily for him, the more than capable line up of double bassist Richard Davis, guitarist Jay Berliner, percussionist Warren Smith Jr. and drummer Connie Kay had played with everyone from Charles Mingus, Oscar Peterson, Leonard Bernstein and Paul Simon between them. As such, they were able to come up with a stunningly liberated, remarkably unique set of accompaniments that give the record its idiosyncratic sound – one that Nick Drake would later credit as the main inspiration behind his own.

‘Astral Weeks’ is what can happen when you let a group of musicians of a certain calibre play with complete autonomy and freedom. They play what they feel, which is a curious combination of pop, jazz, and folk. Most of the songs only really move back and forth between a couple of chords, but the strange ornaments provided by harpsichord, flute, soprano sax and strings give the album a wonderfully rich texture and a sound that streams and bursts from every angle on every track. ‘Slim Slow Slider’ sees five independent melodies dancing as one while simultaneously pleading for attention – even the percussion tries to get in on it by the end. The session leader Davis can be credited with much of the inspiration behind this, and the way he plays at the extremes of his bass on ‘Cyprus Avenue’, with lines that slide and scamper around the fretboard, is a microcosm of the multilayered intricacy that the whole band achieve.

It is easy to see, then, why Robinson must take such joy in covering ‘Astral Weeks, and indeed why any Jazz musician would. It has such a huge scope, such a wealth of possibilities for all players to explore, that a live performance could go in any direction at any given time. And all this before we’ve even talked about the lyrics.

Most assessments of Morrison’s work on the album look at the dream-like world he conjours from the outset, with imagery that it as recognisable as it is ethereal. Morrison invites us back to the Northern Ireland of his youth, forming crystalline vignettes of bucolic calm which are so at odds with the mayhem of his life in Boston. The lyrics shimmer with the freewheelin’ aura of the late ‘60s, but their quintessentially Irish sensibility eschews that American feeling of wide open spaces for a more Gaelic sense of contained tranquility. It’s a gossamer world of ‘viaducts’ and ‘slipstreams’, a pre-raphaelite tableau painted with an impressionist’s muddled form and palate, with Morrison drinking the ‘clean, clear water’ at its centre.

Lester Bangs, the legendary music critic, wrote of the album “Astral Weeks, insofar as it can be pinned down, is a record about people stunned by life, completely overwhelmed, stalled in their skins”, and this feeling of stagnation he is getting at, and the yearning to return to something forgotten or lost, is as good an attempt as any at describing the symbiotic relationship between its sound and meaning. It is an album about transcendence and rebirth: willing itself ‘to be born again’, which may as well be suffixed by ‘ceaselessly into the past”.

To the listening public, the album’s legacy has been immense, but to its creator? Not so much. “They [the tracks] weren’t coming out like I wanted them to come out,” Morrison said in a 2009 interview, “it was someone else’s musical vision which didn’t fit the material”. The subsequent years of adulation suggest the record’s creator got his assessment wrong.

Find out more about this year’s Love Supreme line-up

Tina Edwards interviews Makaya McCraven live at Love Supreme this Summer

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