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Van Morrison - Astral Weeks (Warner Bros.)

1 November 2008

I don’t often wish I were in Los Angeles, but if I could be there November 7-8 at the Hollywood Bowl, I would, because forty years after its November 1968 release, Van Morrison will be performing his album Astral Weeks with two of the musicians he recorded it with. One of the greatest and most intense LPs in history, regardless of genre, Astral Weeks has been in my Top 20 (at least!) for over three decades, and I am far from alone in this.

Upright bassist RICHARD DAVIS, easily one of the top ten bassists in jazz, will participate in the concert. He has sideman credits ranging from Miles Davis, Eric Dolphy, and Andrew Hill to Igor Stravinsky, Leonard Bernstein, and Frank Sinatra. While Astral Weeks is not jazz, it is certainly much more improvisatory than most rock albums – and Davis’s playing is key. Also participating will be guitarist JAY BERLINER, whose most famous credits are on Charles Mingus’s 1963 LPs The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady and Mingus Mingus Mingus Mingus Mingus. Filling out the rhythm section on the LP was CONNIE KAY, who (hiatuses aside) for the four decades preceding his 1994 death was the drummer of the MODERN JAZZ QUARTET.

I can’t begin to explain what this album is “about” in any normal sense, but for me it’s about texture: Davis’s sinuous bass lines, WARREN SMITH JR.’s kaleidoscopic vibraphone parts, JOHN PAYNE’s flute and soprano sax (an uncredited sessionman played flute on some tracks before Payne, a member of Morrison’s acoustic trio of the time, was finally allowed to play). And, most of all, the talking-in-tongues singing of Van the Man himself. When the LP closes on “Slim Slow Slider,” just Morrison, Davis, and Payne, the paradoxical combination of immersion and alienation is devastating in its emotional impact.