Twenty-seven years ago, Van Morrison penned a tune, “I’m Not Feeling It Anymore.” Yet, now more than ever he refuses to just “phone it in.” It seems that “It’s Too Late to Stop Now” is Morrison’s mantra with Versatile, as at the age of 72 he is back to his multiple annual output of the early seventies, releasing his second album in less than three full months. Buoyed by the success of the raucous, sprawling blues statement Roll With the Punches, Van pays tribute to his other favorite American art form, jazz, and jazz vocals in particular. However, while his previous release is a real keeper and worthy addition to his fabled catalog, this, his 38th studio album, falls a bit short. Although it far exceeds others who have tried to cover this material, like Rod Stewart for example, it doesn’t measure up to Van’s classics or to his string of recent albums over the past few years.
Let’s face it. Van is beyond seeking critical acclaim or even fandom at this stage. Based on reviews of his live shows this past fall and the energy behind Roll With the Punches, he is just reveling in the sheer joy of playing and singing. Versatile, a generous offering of 66 minutes plus gives him the opportunity to play his alto sax on eight of the sixteen tracks, two of which are instrumentals including the gorgeous “Affirmation,” a Morrison penned tune that features Sir James Galway on flute. It’s a consistent lineup of seven or eight musicians with usually a three-piece horn section. Players like keyboardist/trumpeter Paul Moran and guitarist Dave Keary having been with Morrison for several years now. Alastair White handles the trombone while Christopher White plays multiple reeds. It’s a democratic mix of concise, melodic solos, leaving this listener wanting at least a few adventurous excursions often heard on Van’s live albums.
Morrison penned six of the tunes, including the live “I Forgot That Love Existed,” a far different version than the more upbeat one heard on A Night in San Francisco or even its original on Poetic Champions Compose. “Start All Over Again” first appeared on Enlightenment. The repertoire is heavy on jazz standards, again not a new thing for Morrison, but perhaps more effective when sprinkled in with blues, and R&B as he so typically does. Arguably, leaving out the oft-covered “Bye Bye Blackbird,” “’Makin’ Whoopee,” and “I Get a Kick Out of You” would have made the album crisper and weighted more toward originals. He gets a pass on “I Left My Heart in San Francisco” as he still has real affection for the area he lived in in the mid ‘70s (and you can hear it). The album swings and Van’s phrasing is still a marvel to behold. Yet, blame it on the material maybe, but he never really catches fire.
Notably Jay Berliner, the guitarist from Astral Weeks guests on the final track, Gershwins’ “They Can’t Take That Away From Me.” These sounds from The Great American Songbook have been with Morrison his whole life, from his days listening to Radio Luxembourg growing up in Belfast. So, maybe that’s his real intent here – just an expression of the music he loves so deeply that no one can take away from him.