Poetry and Jazz

I was not yet in kindergarten in 1968 when Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks was released and failed to reach the Billboard 200 album chart. It was over a decade later that I, browsing in a Tower Records store, decided to purchase my first LP by him. Of course I knew “Brown Eyed Girl,” “Moondance,” “Domino,” “Wild Night,” “Wavelength,” and others, but it was Astral Weeks, an album with which I was completely unfamiliar, that I bought – I’m not sure why. Maybe it was the cover, with its attractive leaded-glass window-like design and double exposure photograph of sunlit trees and a now-impossibly-young-looking Morrison. Maybe it was the evocative title or the “In The Beginning” and “Afterwards” designations for the sides. Maybe it was the poetry – the lines of jazz and blues, of flowing streams of consciousness, of snow, of a ballerina – on the back cover. Whatever prompted my choice,1 the decision has served me well; although I wouldn’t necessarily cite Astral Weeks as my favorite album, it is up there on the list and could very well be the one I’ve listened to the most in my life.

Van Morrison: Astral Weeks LP. Warner Bros. Records (1968).

Jay Berliner, Richard Davis, Connie Kay, Warren Smith Jr.: these names didn’t mean anything to me back then – jazz, even now, is a genre I don’t know much about; at that time, I knew next to nothing – but it was obvious that what these cats played was so germane and so inspired that it seems the whole ensemble had gone, as Morrison would soon put it, “into the mystic.”2 I’ve read that Morrison would record his guitar/vocal take and the musicians would improvise their parts minutes later, after which Morrison would move on to the next number.3 The songs themselves are stunning – half of them clock in at well over six minutes, allowing a gradual unfolding of emotion, of compassion, of vision. Morrison’s performance is, of course, breathtaking; his idiosyncratic phrasing, so much a part of his style, transforms the words into sounds that are by turns exultant and heartbreaking.

These days, the music to which I paint is almost always either classically-based “new music” or in an ambient vein, but until relatively recently, much of my work time had been spent in the company of Astral Weeks. It made an indelible impression on me during the years just prior to my beginning to paint and has provided untold inspiration since then. Although I don’t believe I’ve ever used imagery taken directly from any of the songs, Astral Weeks informed my burgeoning aesthetic by revealing that grace and redemption could be found in life’s often overwhelming moments of darkness and despair. Dry your eye.

 

1 It was not Lester Bangs’ insightful essay on the album, “the rock record with the most significance in [his] life….” I wouldn’t read those thoughts until years later, when Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung; Alfred A. Knopf (1987) was published.

2 Compare the Astral Weeks recordings of “Beside You” and “Madame George” to the earlier Bang Records versions, first released in 1973 on the T.B. Sheets album, for an illustration of what they contributed.

3 John Payne, on flute and soprano sax, played in Morrison’s contemporaneous live band and was the only musician present who had heard the songs prior to the sessions.