REVIEW: Orphy Robinson: Van Morrison's Astral Weeks – the 50th Anniversary Concert at the Queen Elizabeth Hall (2018 EFG LJF)

Orphy Robinson at the soundcheck for Astral Weeks
Photo credit and © Carl Hyde

Orphy Robinson: Van Morrison's Astral Weeks – the 50th Anniversary Concert
(Queen Elizabeth Hall, 19 November 2018. EFG London Jazz Festival. Review by Alison Bentley)

It’s 50 years since the release of Astral Weeks, and ten since Van Morrison’s live reprise of the whole album. So vibes-player Orphy Robinson’s reworking of the eight songs felt timely. How would he “recreate the album,” without alienating Morrison aficionados by changing this iconic music? The venue was sold out and the enthusiastic audience had come to find out.

Young drummer Katie Patterson opened the song Astral Weeks freely. But Dudley Philips soon brought in the familiar bass line, first created by Eric Dolphy’s bassist Richard Davis, and Patterson took on the role created by the MJQ’s Connie Kay. Van’s guitar patterns were strummed by Mo Nazam and, as Joe Cang’s husky soulful voice joined in, the groove was reassuringly familiar. Sahra Gure’s high pure vocal improvisations, with their overtones of Indian ragas, took the song to a new place.

"I had two strands going – one was blues, one was poetry," said Van in a recent interview, and you could hear both clearly in this version of Beside You. Tony Remy’s powerful opening guitar solo seemed to be drawing the blues from John Lee Hooker’s inheritance. Gure sang freely, almost chanting the poetic words at times, as Justina Curtis’ Hammond lifted the mood.

The musicians spanned the generations. Young singer Zara MacFarlane’s jazz-soul voice fitted into Sweet Thing as if it had always been there: a huge voice with a calm centre, reflecting Morrison’s gospel influences. Many of the original backing lines were in place, with their jazz pedigree: Robinson’s vibes took on the mantle of Max Roach’s vibes player, Warren Smith Jnr. The solos were freer and longer than in Morrison’s own band, notably Curtis’ uplifting piano solo.

The arrangement of Cyprus Avenue was changed the most – Sarah Jane Morris possessed the stage in a magnificent Chicago blues. Her Janis Joplin growl along with Remy’s distorted guitar drawl made the song sound considerably less innocent than the original. Cello (Kate Shortt) and Rowland Sutherland’s flute supplanted the horn section of the minor (almost) blues The Way Young Lovers Do. Sutherland’s flute solo sounded light and liquid, Nazam’s solo had a Spanish tinge, and Robinson’s vibes solo was quite thrilling, both free and rhythmic over walking bass.

The second set (to give us time to turn over the record, joked Robinson) introduced us to Madam George. Sarah Jane Morris led us through the mysterious stream-of-consciousness narrative. She sang it as if it was performance poetry, repeating the trance-like phrases over sweet piano and cello. "How I wish that I had met Madam George," she said as she left the stage. MacFarlane brought a little '60s Thelma Houston to Ballerina, powerfully understated. The original’s vibes riffs were replaced by piano here, Robinson himself on electronic hand drum as a rockier feel developed. In Slim Slow Slider, Remy’s laid-back notes were drenched in the blues, while Cang and Nazam created a country feel.

Astral Weeks was a slow-burning album, while the 1970 Moondance was more immediately popular, and the encore tonight included two of its songs. Moondance has become a jazz standard with many treatments – this was swung by MacFarlane with a dramatic bowed solo from Shortt. All four singers harmonised Crazy Love behind Cang’s sweet falsetto. Jackie Wilson Said from Saint Dominic’s Preview had the full house cheering, clapping and singing along.

Robinson’s reworking of Astral Weeks was close enough to the original to please the cognoscenti, but also full of intricate subtleties and inventive solos. “Whatever you hear, play it and go with it,” Van Morrison told the original band, and it sounded as if Orphy Robinson has taken his superb band in the same direction.

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