- The Washington Times - Monday, November 3, 2003

Van Morrison

What’s Wrong With This Picture?

Blue Note Records

“I don’t have no hit record / I don’t have no TV show / Tell me why should I have to live in this goldfish bowl,” Van Morrison sings on his latest record, “What’s Wrong With This Picture?”

Better polish the glass on that bowl; Mr. Morrison is one happenin’ fish again. “Picture” is looking as if it’s going to sell decently, debuting promisingly at No. 32 on Billboard’s Top 200.

There’s another reason to peer into that goldfish domicile: The album was released on august Blue Note Records — the proud stable of the “finest jazz since 1939.”

Jazz purists already were vexed by that pop upstart, Norah Jones, who, in their view, hijacked Blue Note’s trad credibility and dragged it into that alien land known as crossover. Critic Terry Teachout, for example, vented in the Wall Street Journal in the summer of 2002 that Miss Jones “ain’t jazz.”

Now here’s Mr. Morrison, backed by a TV promotion campaign, no less, with a record that the New York Times has lumped together with recent boomer-propelled fodder from Barbra Streisand and Rod Stewart.

Duke Ellington and Miles Davis presumably are picketing in their graves.

It’s true that Mr. Teachout’s misgivings apply equally to Mr. Morrison. The Irish singer-songwriter is many things — pop, blues, soul, R&B;, folk — but he “ain’t jazz,” swingin’ fare such as “Moondance” notwithstanding.

Yet “Picture” has everything a purist — of any genre — could want. It’s suffused with reverence, educated passion and enthusiasm for American roots music, especially the blues and hymns of the Delta. Like an inspired cover of Lightnin’ Hopkins’ “Stop Drinking,” not to mention Mr. Morrison’s strong bluesy compositions — “Whinin Boy Moan,” “Too Many Myths,” “Fame.”

“Picture” may have been made in Ireland, but it sounds more like Muscle Shoals, Ala.

Self-produced by Mr. Morrison, the album never strays from a simple formula: Let the voice do the talking. Horn arrangements — including Mr. Morrison’s own alto sax — cut and slash and thrum; Richard Dunn’s B-3 organ fills in the background of most songs, and the Irish Film Orchestra adds a wistful lyricism to a couple tracks.

Mr. Morrison’s rich and buttery baritone towers like an old redwood.

Hitching his wagon to Blue Note offers Mr. Morrison the one thing he seems not to want: a boost in profile. Just listen: “Everybody’s jaded by fame” (“Fame”); “Got too much hassle, baby, and not enough bliss / Got to give these hangers-on a miss” (“Get on With the Show”); “Gotta get away from the city / It’s gonna bring you down” (“Little Village”).

Then he looks solitude in the face, and he doesn’t like what he sees: “Nobody knows the existential dread / Of the things that go on inside / Someone else’s head,” Mr. Morrison sympathizes on “Meaning of Loneliness.”

The key, as you might have guessed from the guy who wrote one of the sweetest slow dances ever, “Tupelo Honey,” is love. Mr. Morrison coos as if he’s head over heels for the first time in too long on “Once in a Blue Moon,” a satisfying blend of rolling New Orleans blues and ‘50s pop balladry that Mr. Morrison has perfected.

It would be a good idea for Mr. Morrison to seek safety in the arms of that special someone right about now. The trad jazzers may be on his trail.

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