Richard Purden

AT THE Europa Hotel in Belfast, Van Morrison fans from America, Spain and Scotland are conferring over the singer’s vocal prowess. In a quiet corner, the man himself sits draining a glass of blood red tomato juice. The fans have paid hundreds to enjoy a three-course meal then watch Morrison perform to an intimate audience of only 350.

At the Europa Morrison previewed songs from his latest album The Prophet Speaks, on which he collaborates with the jazz multi-instrumentalist Joey DeFrancesco. DeFrancesco cut his teeth opening for BB King in 1981 at age 10. At the same age in Belfast back in 1955, Morrison was also becoming absorbed with blues and jazz in a local record shop

“It was a dimly lit room with a lot of grown-up men smoking cigars,” he says. He recalls the shop was “run by Solly Lipsitz who had the nickname Dr Jazz, he got all these imports from New York because his sister lived there. I would be there every Saturday with my father and uncle. It was part of my life.”

It was perhaps inevitable that Morrison and DeFrancesco would end up working together. Earlier this year they shared the bill on You’re Driving Me Crazy, an album which set the tone for a new creative flourish just months before the Morrison celebrated his 73rd birthday.

“I like working with different people,” he says, sitting in the Culloden Hotel clinking a cup of tea against the saucer. “There’s a tendency to get stuck, this is a complete contrast to my gig with the regular band.”

Underpinned by DeFrancesco’s vintage Hammond organ, the band also features guitarist Dan Wilson, tenor saxophonist Troy Roberts, and drummer Michael Ode who has offered a striking take on Morrison’s Moondance.

“Yeah it's great,” he says clearly pleased with the results. “I don’t like to repeat it, there’s been various versions, there’s a good Latin version from Live at Montreux in 1980. We’ve done some different big band versions, there’s one with Gil Evans in London, you bring them in and out, they kind of evolve.”

Elsewhere DeFranceso’s musical touch is all over The Way Young Lovers Do from the album Astral Weeks. “It evolved, Joey put the contrast of a John Coltrane spin on it, it’s more like something he would play in the minor key.” There’s something of Miles Davis style with the reference to So What? “Exactly, he worked with Miles so I put that in but we’ve had that for a while now.”

Morrison admits he might be “giving the game away” but setting himself a new challenge has been vital to the work. Taking its cue from the iconic Bluenote Jazz label, You’re Driving Me Crazy and The Prophet Speaks were promptly recorded.

“On the records with Joey we don't mess about, we record the thing in a couple of days. When I’m working with other people it could take a year but Joey and I work the old way, the jazz way, that’s how people recorded back then. You get more done and you get it out there fast. Roll With The Punches (2017) took six months but these records are recorded, mixed and turned around really quick.”

While The Prophet Speaks leans closer to the blues with covers by John Lee Hooker and Willie Dixon, Morrison suggests it was important to get back to writing original material such as Spirit Will Provide, a song that “changes the dynamic,” while returning to more ethereal themes. “It goes back to Into The Mystic and various things I’ve written so it’s new and old; there’s a thread which is ongoing.”

Similarly, Got To Go Where The Love Is, with its soul and gospel flavours, is as melodic as anything in his back catalogue. “I was going for a Bobby Bland angle. Lyrically, it’s about the way human beings are. The lyrics say it all.”

While Morrison shared the cover space with DeFrancesco on the previous album this time it features another facet of his childhood in the form of a puppet.

“It’s from a radio show (Educating Archie) a long time ago. We were going to do it before but couldn’t get the right dummy of Archie Andrews but we found the guy who had the original from the radio programme. I liked the idea of a radio ventriloquist. The title is a play on that. Archie’s got something to say; you have to shut him up.”

Five albums spread out in just over two years is a notable output for any artist but for one of the most significant from these islands in his early 70s to be still pushing creative boundaries is significant.

“These guys know exactly what they are doing so I have to step up to that. It’s challenged me to go further because they are on the same page, they know we are going somewhere and that we are making something happen together, that’s the difference, like with my regular band, if I wasn’t in front of them they wouldn’t be playing my music, they’d be in different bands. This is a band that’s already a band, they exist without me rather than something I’ve put together.”

At the beginning of his solo career recording and releasing records in quick succession stemmed from very different circumstances. Morrison’s Astral Weeks, which celebrates its 50th anniversary this month, was said to have been recorded in two eight-hour sessions in the autumn of 1968 and was released in November that same year.

“I didn’t know what I was doing,” Morrison suggests as one possible reason for the album’s longevity. Although recorded in America the songs were rooted in Belfast and written as a series of coming-of-age vignettes portraying the city’s people and their context shorty before what would become known as The Troubles began.

“I wrote it when I was a teenager but I didn't record it until 1968. Some of it was recorded with Bert Berns but it never came out because the songs weren’t right. There’s all this mythology about it but a lot of the record was written between 1964 and 66. Some of the songs were longer, others were edited down, that album went through many forms.

"When the record did come out I was just 23. I thought I was being cutting edge and pushing the envelope for that time but by 1968 it was all over.”

Not since the early 1970s has there been such a high-output of work, the major variance being the conditions set upon him. “I was a hungry young guy, I was starving, sleeping on couches and doing albums on a low budget, it was a lot of hardship which I don’t even like to think about now.

"In the old days I was putting out two albums a year because otherwise I couldn’t survive. Warner Brothers were getting all the songs and publishing. Now it depends on what I want to say at the time, my relationship with a song and who is recording with me. My writing is just a continuous thing, it’s always whatever I want to say at the time.

"There is always stuff being written and demoed in the background but now it’s just stuff I want to put out, it’s not a knee jerk reaction anymore. Some of the songs on Versatile (2017) were recorded ten years ago but we decided to put it out last year.”

How does Morrison feel about the ever growing reputation of Astral Weeks which for many remains the greatest album of the last 50 years. “The Astral Weeks thing, that was for that period of time and it only makes sense for that period, for any other time it doesn’t.

"When I get people saying ‘that’s my favourite album’ my feeling is that I was just a kid when I made that record; I didn't know what was going on. It’s something that’s there, if I do that stuff now, I do it as a 70 something year old.”

The potency of Morrison’s voice, if anything, has grown stronger. “There’s more stretching out because that’s what these guys do - they are primarily jazz musicians. I just don't waste it, it's the same thing with the body; push it and stretch it! I’m not a finished product, I’m a work in progress.”

The Prophet Speaks is out on December 7th