1995 interview with Van Morrison
jchiarelli@EARTHWATCH.ORG transcribed the following interview from a Polygram promotional CD, 529 949-2 entitled Interview CD: How Long Has This Been Going On, Van Morrison with Georgie Fame and Friends. It comes in a slim plastic jewel box like a lot of CD singles. The front cover is an exact duplicate of the How Long Has This Been Going On CD cover except it says "Interview CD" above "Van" on the upper left. The inside cover looks just like the back of the HLHTBGO CD booklet (the orange saxophone) but instead of the song titles, it lists John Fordham's questions, though many are reworded from what he actually says on the CD. This, and the fact that there are 3-4 second pauses on the CD between Fordham's questions and Van's answers, I assume is so DJ's can say things like, "I asked Van to name his favorite jazz players..." and then play just Van's recorded response. The CD plays for 8 minutes, 17 seconds.
The comments in brackets are Jim Chiarelli's. Some notes follow at the end.
John Fordham: Van, what made you decide to make a jazz record this time? How did you set it up? How did you choose the players and choose the songs?
Van Morrison: Well basically Georgie Fame put, he basically put the band together and I got Pee Wee Ellis to do the arrangements. And Guy Barker, he's been working with Georgie Fame for a couple of years, probably more. And I've sort of always wanted to do a type of jazz/R&B, jazz sort of record. It's sort of ironic. I came out of the jazz and blues scene in Belfast. I actually made my reputation as a blues singer. So once I went to [unintelligible -- London?], I got caught up in the commercial thing cause that's what was happening in the 60s. That was it. I think with this situation, this music, I think if I can keep going in that direction I think I can be much more myself and do what I want to do. You know, instead of trying to fit in to sort of a mold I've been in for a long time. I heard jazz because my father had a record collection. So like I heard all this music constantly playing in the background all the time. So I mean I thought that was natural. You know, I thought everybody must have heard this stuff. To me it was like breathing.
JF: What were the things that particularly stood out that your father played, things that made a big impression on you as a child?
VM: Well, mainly certain New Orleans stuff. But there was like gospel music. I suppose what made the biggest impression was gospel and blues.
JF: Did you feel that America was a place that you naturally were gravitating towards?
VM: No, I didn't at all. I just got to America by accident, really. One thing led to the other and I ended up staying there but it wasn't my intention. It's actually quite different living in America. There is a European version of jazz. And for me personally, I think I have to sort of be in Europe to appreciate that.
JF: There are very big variations on this record. There's a very sort of boogie-ish feel to some of it. And the Mose Allison example -- there are a couple of Mose Allison pieces. And some of it is kind of good time-y and swing-y. Do you have a particular preference?
VM: Well my favorite would be "Who Can I Turn To". As a song to sing. It's a challenge to sing that song.
JF: What about "That's Life" particularly? What is it about that that gets you?
VM: Well it's the lyrics, really. The lyrics. Benny Green [see note 1] said that it was written by two guys at the end of the line. That's how he put it.
JF: Miles Davis [see note 2] was famous for being someone who didn't want to talk about the reason for playing this music. He would always say it's there in the music, that's all you have to take account of. It doesn't have to be explained. Is that part of a kind of peripheral appeal of jazz? That it's something that you can almost stay behind it, the music is there, it doesn't require you to be a personality?
VM: That's what it is mainly for me. It doesn't require me to, you know, be a star. Necessarily. You can be more anonymous, I feel. Especially if I'm working with really good musicians. Then they can take a lot of the emphasis off me for a bit. Which I like. I like anonymity.
JF: Who are the jazz players you listen to now?
VM: Tenor players, you know, like Coltrane. The ballads stuff [see note 3]. Now I listen to Mose Allison quite a bit. R&B like Bobby Bland, Ray Charles. I like Ray a lot, um, because he does the whole thing, you know? A complete cross section. Mainly Ray Charles, I think.
JF: There's quite a feel of the Ray Charles band in some of this. It's got that... Particularly the way the horns are written for and everything. Was Pee Wee Ellis involved in writing?
VM: Oh yeah, he wrote the horn charts. Yeah
JF: By the standards of a lot of record making, this was all put together pretty fast, wasn't it?
VM: Yeah it was, but I think it's because we rehearsed, had a couple of good rehearsals. And so everybody was ready and clued-in.
JF: And how long did it actually take to do?
VM: An afternoon. We were there four hours maybe, five hours. All these musicians are very good and very clued-in. They're very fast, you know? So... You know, it's great to work with these kind of people. You usually don't find these type of musicians in the rock field. 'Cause it's much more sort of plodding.
JF: Where was the record recorded, Van, and what was it about the venue that you like?
VM: Um, we just sort of did it at Ronnie Scott's for, sort of, just the vibe.
JF: Did you do it straight through? I mean was there an audience there?
VM: Oh there was a few people there. Yeah, some friends. But it wasn't live as such. I mean it was live, recorded live, but there wasn't really an audience there was just people... A few people dropped in.
JF: Did you treat it as a live performance? Or did you go back on things?
VM: Well, I always do that anyway. I mean, even when I'm doing the other records that's the way I do it anyhow. You know, as live as possible. I don't like to overdub anything. If I don't have to. That's always the feel I'm looking for, is the spontaneity, anyway, you know? At all times.
JF: What is it about overdubs? Do you think they just don't sound as if they really happened that way? Is it something...
VM: Well to me I just don't like them. I don't like the whole mechanical thing of overdubbing. I just like, you know, that instant thing of singing a song and having it all played at the same time. You know? For me, that's what the buzz is. When I start overdubbing, I just get bored with it, you know?
JF: What's the feeling from live performances? Do you enjoy what you get back off audiences? Does that change the way you do it?
VM: Yeah... It doesn't change... no, it doesn't change the way you do it. Uh, it's just that you're there for, like, those couple of hours you're there in that space and you've got to make it happen. So I suppose that's really what it is. It's, uh, pressure... to make it happen. And you need a certain amount of that which you can't get in the studio because the studio is more controlled, you know? I mean you could do it next day or do it, you know, next week or next year. You know, there's no... But you're more in control of your life when you're in a studio whereas with the gig thing, you know, you have to be there and do it then, make it happen now [snaps fingers].
JF: Can I ask you about your horn playing, how you got started with that? And how important it is to you as well?
VM: Well, I started when I was about fifteen. But my chops aren't really together. Because I, you see, I don't... There are so many other horn players that I work with that, you know, it's hard to keep up, you know, if you're not playing all the time. But saxophone, you know it's not like a guitar. You can leave a guitar for six years and then pick it up and play it, but you can't do that with a saxophone. You have to play like every day. And I find that I just, you know, don't have the time. I'd like to but, you know, I have to make the time.
1. Benny Green was a jazz disc jockey and radio personality in the UK.
2. Famous Miles Davis story: when asked why he refused to give interviews about his music and why what few public comments he had made were so cryptic, Miles responded: "If you understood everything I said, you'd be me."
3. Van could be referring specifically to the recently re-issued John Coltrane recording called Ballads, on the Impulse! label. He may also be referring to the recording by John Coltrane and vocalist Johnny Hartman entitled John Coltrane and Johnny Hartman, also recently re-issued on Impulse!. Both sets are made up entirely of jazz standards, which represented quite a departure for Coltrane at the time, who was in 1962 and 1963, just getting in to his more avant garde period. Both sets are excellent, particularly the one with Hartman. It's one of my 10-12 desert island discs. Highly recommended. Both sets are VERY mellow and sensual -- not jumping, like HLHTBGO.