The art gallery of rock and roll is a rich and welcoming place, with room upon room spinning off into many-directioned distances. There is no entrance fee or warnings to stand back, please, from the piece. And, like at all great museums, any pretense to surface comportment is, if meaningful at all, only a nod of respect to the spark of human creativity. A sign that we don’t stand in willful ignorance. Before the work, within the work, we are all children. It is in rock’s nature to empower its listeners to create, and within this space there is no genre, no boogie no punk no progressive no pop no indie no folk, just an honoring of the empty canvas and the unrestrained fire banked down in humanity. It’s what I love about rock, and it’s what made Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks happen.
Drummer Connie Kay and guitarist Jay Berliner both famously recounted that Morrison told his musicians — and these weren’t just any musicians, but some of the finest jazz players New York could provide in the late 1960s, led by the inimitable bassist Richard Davis — to “play what you want” and then left them alone to back and guide him on a set of eight songs whose precedents were slim and bore little relation to the rock-pop classics he recorded with his band Them (“Gloria,” “Here Comes the Night”) or on his first solo album (“Brown Eyed Girl”). Astral Weeks (1968) is an echo of Miles Davis’s Kind of Blue (1959), where an extraordinarily talented group of jazz musicians received a similar lack of instruction, and Love’s Forever Changes (1967), where the pop songwriter deliberately challenged the very notion and direction of his craft. Morrison’s artistic success on Astral Weeks was, and remains, startling. The album’s embrace of acoustic jazz as a way forward had a profound impact on the burgeoning “singer songwriter” movement, and for better or worse has become instant point of comparison with subsequent work by musicians such as Joni Mitchell or Tim Buckley or Nick Drake.
“Ballerina” captures the essence of an album that is about nothing as much as ecstatic love, the joyous and at times Joyce-ean observations of a 23-year-old ancient who had spent the previous year turning his voice into a bebop trumpet. While Morrison got and kept his fame on the back of “Brown Eyed Girl” and “Moondance” and the slew of equally wonderful R&B radio-ready hits that would come his way, it’s here that his artistic street cred was established, as he honored the canvas and invited Davis, Kay, and Berliner to follow their hearts along with him.
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