For rock stars of a certain age, the eventual turn to the Great American Songbook can feel something like an obligation, or a graceful bow goodbye. For Van Morrison, it’s no such thing.
The 72-year-old Irish musician, who was knighted in 2016, has always had roots planted in early jazz, jump blues and midcentury R&B. From the early 1960s, he was playing blues covers and soul offshoots in Belfast garage bands. Since going solo in 1967, he’s kept his ensembles stacked with heavy-duty improvisers, often building something like a rock ‘n’ roll big band, with a formidable horn section.
Last year’s “Versatile” was Mr. Morrison’s first thoroughbred jazz release, a mix of standards and originals from his back catalog played in a jaunty swing. “You’re Driving Me Crazy,” out Friday, takes a similar approach, but it moves with a lot more vigor and conviction.
That’s largely thanks to Mr. Morrison’s co-bandleader, the Hammond B-3 virtuoso Joey DeFrancesco. Leading a quartet, Mr. DeFrancesco stretches out wide beneath the singer’s blustering swagger, often interceding with riffs and jabs of his own. Mr. Morrison sounds less like his old blend of Otis Redding and Seamus Heaney here and — especially on the standards “Miss Otis Regrets” and “Travelin’ Light” — a touch more arch, closer to Elvis Costello. But there’s no questioning the roiling passion in his voice, or his knack for a deftly curled melody.
In a phone interview from London, where he was preparing for a tour in support of the album, Mr. Morrison talked about his lifelong connection to jazz and blues; the joys of working with Mr. DeFrancesco; and, unavoidably, his hatred of interviews just like this one. Here are edited excerpts from the conversation.
Was there anything that Joey DeFrancesco brought to the table that you felt was different from past musical partners?
They’re all different, but it’s not an intellectual exercise for me. 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. On this, everything we tried worked, and we did it in two days. It took actually longer to mix it than to record it. In the old days, when I started, that’s how they made records.
I’m assuming everything was pretty much played live in the studio on this album.
Yeah, absolutely. The thing about jazz is the spontaneity. That’s the thing I love. In my song “Goldfish Bowl,” it says, “Jazz, funk and blues, folk music with a beat, and a whole lot of soul.” That’s kind of the mixture of what I do. But the emphasis is always on spontaneity and improvising. When I play live, I never sing a song the same way twice. So to understand it, you need to have come to a lot of gigs. You can’t really tell by the recordings.
I’ve always thought of your voice as almost like a tenor sax, in terms of its texture and power. But listening to you next to Joey, I hear a lot of overlap between the wide, windy organ sound and your voice. Did it feel different to be working with someone who has that much body in the way he plays his instrument?
Well, it’s whatever feels right and feels good. All the instruments influence me vocally, whether it be saxophone or guitar or organ or piano. The different thing about this is that these guys are such brilliant soloists. And Joey’s kind of like a genius in his own right. So it puts a different spin on it. It’s a challenge, and a challenge is always good. We all need challenges, right?
You often get grouped with certain other people from the British invasion: the Beatles, Eric Clapton, the Rolling Stones. But it’s an association you’ve resisted.
Those were the people that were popular because they were promoted, and they made it on “The Ed Sullivan Show.” There were tons of other people apart from that. There was hundreds of people that were in bands playing skiffle. There was literally hundreds at that time. I was never part of any invasion. I had to make it totally on my own.
What do you think of the music industry right now, in terms of what it’s promoting?
I don’t really think anything about the music industry, because I’ve never been into pop music. Mose Allison said that he made it in spite of the music business. I made it in spite, and I’m still making it in spite of the music business. I have absolutely nothing to do with the music business as you know it.
Are you interested in contemporary jazz?
No, not really. I still go back to the original stuff. When I listen to it, I get more from it — the stuff I didn’t hear the first time around.
Do you have an example?
Well, Louis Armstrong, for instance. And lots of vocalists, like Ray Charles, Bobby Bland, Sam Cooke.
In terms of Armstrong, what do you return to?
I just go back to the All Stars, from the ’50s, with Jack Teagarden.
Interesting, most people would say the Hot Fives or the Hot Sevens. Why are the All Stars your favorite?
I don’t know. Why do you like a certain painting? I don’t know.
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