Aretha Franklin and Van Morrison are the best vocal improvisers of their generation, but neither can be accurately described as a jazz singer. When authentic jazz singers such as Jon Hendricks or Betty Carter improvise, they construct new harmonic lines as variations on the melody. When Morrison and Franklin take off on the tag of a song, they employ more of a blues approach: They don’t alter the harmonies so much as add new emotional emphasis to old chord progressions. This is true even when they tackle jazz standards, as the Queen of Soul did on her early albums for Columbia and as the Belfast Cowboy does on his new album, How Long Has This Been Going On.
Morrison’s new album may feature such jazz-vocal classics as King Pleasure’s “New Symphony Sid” and traditional jazz solos by two longtime collaborators, saxophonist Pee Wee Ellis and organist Georgie Fame, but Morrison devotes himself in true blues style to squeezing as much feeling — in this case, joy — as possible out of the repeating melodies.
This is quite a change for a singer who has spent most of the past 25 years wrestling with “the lion inside of me” and contemplating the shadows of Celtic mysticism. Those angst-filled meditations have led to some brilliant albums, but if last year’s underwhelming Days Like This is any indication, that vein may be running dry. Or maybe going back to the Mose Allison and Frank Sinatra songs that Morrison loved as a kid has merely reminded him of more cheerful times. Whatever the reason, he has recorded his brightest, most extroverted music since the early ’70s trio of Moondance, His Band and the Street Choir and Tupelo Honey. Even songs about heartbreak, such as Louis Jordan’s “Early in the Mornin'” and Cannonball Adderley’s “Sack o’ Woe” (whose lyrics are all about heartbreak and the blues), receive upbeat treatments, as if Morrison were trying to outdo his own horn section by honking and shouting with pleasure. It’s an old blues trick — laughing in the face of trouble — but Morrison does it with such contagious enthusiasm, it sounds fresh again.
Morrison’s own composition “Moondance” has become a jazz standard itself in recent years, and the song fits in here alongside songs by George Gershwin, Harold Arlen and Lester Young. Taken at a briskly swinging tempo, this seven-minute version showcases strutting solos by the former James Brown saxophonist Ellis and the British rhythm & blues organist Fame (both veterans of Morrison’s band), and it ends with a scatting, exclamatory vocal coda by Morrison.
Even better is “All Saint’s Day,” a 1991 Morrison composition that’s reworked as a finger-snapping invitation to a romantic holiday rendezvous, with the one-time Irish sourpuss crowing, “Follow my lead, it is no wonder; I seem to be so high, living my dreams the way I ought to,” as if he were the happiest man in the world.