Van Morrison is one of the most revered singers and songwriters of the postwar pop music era, which means there’s no shortage of singers eager to collaborate with him. But according to some of those close to the mercurial Irish musician, there are relatively few he’s been longing to work with.
That number increases with Monday's release of Morrison's new album, “Duets: Re-Working the Catalogue.” Among his 16 duet partners: Mavis Staples, Taj Mahal, Michael Bublé, Natalie Cole, Mark Knopfler, the late Bobby Womack, U.K. jazz singer Clare Teal and Morrison's daughter, Shana Morrison.
“Since I was a kid,” Bublé told The Times by phone from Argentina, “no one in the modern world has inspired me more" than Morrison. Saying he’s rarely given a concert that hasn’t included at least one of Morrison’s songs, Bublé added: “That was my dream duet. I would have taken him over Sinatra, for sure. This is absolutely massive for me.”
For Morrison, “There were two parts to it,” the 69-year-old artist told The Times in an exclusive email interview. “One was the fun of doing duets. The other was re-working the songs, as no one else is working them. ... It’s not like the old days, where you had a publisher that was going to work your songs. So that was the other strand of the duets.”
Morrison has spent the vast majority of his career looking ahead, writing and recording a string of studio albums that now numbers more than three dozen; “Duets: Re-Working the Catalogue” represents a rare dip into his past.
The most recent precedent was Morrison's 2008-09 “Astral Weeks Live” tour in which he revisited his watershed 1968 jazz-pop-rock-soul album. In 1988, he recorded “Irish Heartbeat,” an album-length collaboration with the Irish music group the Chieftains. In 2000 he put out a country-leaning album of songs with Jerry Lee Lewis’ sister, Linda Gail Lewis, “You Win Again.”
The new album, he said, “has been in the works for a long time ... it just seemed the right time to do it when the Blues Fest was going on in London in 2013.”
During that event, Morrison invited Staples, Womack and Cole to go into a recording studio to get the ball rolling. He’s been chipping away at it ever since.
Last year, blues musician Mahal had just finished a European tour and stopped in Northern Ireland to record “How Can a Poor Boy” with Morrison, whom Mahal said he has long admired.
“I first heard him in the '60s at a show with Aretha Franklin and Dr. John and I thought then, ‘Who is this guy?’” Mahal told The Times at a performance Morrison gave last summer outside his hometown of Belfast. “Even then, you knew he’s no copyist. There’s a lot of people he likes, but there’s nobody like him.”
The distinctive blend of musical styles in Morrison’s music was cited by several of the album's duet participants as the reason they jumped at the invitation to join him.
“What I love about Van so much was that you couldn’t categorize him,” said Bublé, who sings one of his favorite Morrison songs, “Real Real Gone,” on the album. “He’s created this wonderful mix of rock and jazz and blues and folk and Irish folk -- for me it became kind of a standard I want to reach.”
For Teal, it bordered on the surreal when an unsolicited invitation to sing with Morrison arrived by email.
“It was like getting the Willy Wonka golden ticket. I had no idea it was coming," she said. "I specialize in big band music and swing, but Van was one of the few modern writers that came onto my radar screen. I love the way he puts songs together. I love those licks; there’s obviously a lot of the blues in what he does, and every word he sings, he means, and that’s rare.
"I’ve been singing for 10 or 15 years now," she added, "and I don’t think I’ve ever done a show without a Van song in it.”
Morrison's storied back catalog, which stretches back to his recordings with the Irish rock band Them in 1965, encompasses hundreds of songs that he and his duet partners drew from for the new album. To a large extent the songs avoid cornerstone numbers from Morrison’s repertoire, focusing more on deep cuts from albums that nearly span his career.
“Some [artists] chose their own songs and I had specific tracks in mind for others,” he said.
“[For] Bobby Womack, I sent him that track,” referring to “Some Peace of Mind,” a track from Morrison’s 1991 album “Hymns to the Silence.” “Other ones had songs in mind, like Mick Hucknall wanted to do ‘Streets of Arklow,' he specifically picked that song and Mark Knopfler, Michael Bublé and Natalie Cole picked their songs.
"Of course the PJ Proby one is pretty obvious," Morrison said. "I had recorded that song [‘Whatever Happened to PJ Proby’] sometime in the early 2000s, so that was an easy one.”
The album is produced by Morrison with Don Was and Bob Rock. Was is known for a string of high-profile producer credits with the Rolling Stones, Neil Diamond, Iggy Pop, Willie Nelson and Kris Kristofferson, among numerous others.
“He doesn’t really need a producer,” said Was, who as president of Blue Note Records also released Morrison’s 2012 studio album, “Born to Sing—No Plan B." “I just helped with some of the guest vocals.
“To be honest, I think he has so much respect for these artists who joined him, I just felt he didn’t want to be perceived as bossing them around,” Was said. “Like it would be disrespectful for him to tell them how to sing. That’s really all I did.”
Most of the tracks were done with the singers together in the studio, though for a couple — including “These Are the Days” with Cole — scheduling required Morrison to lay down the basic track and his vocal, with his collaborator adding her or his part later.
Cole said she’d never met Morrison before, although when they got together, he expressed his affection for the music of her father, Nat King Cole, and made a point of telling her that he’d long followed her career as well.
“He’s always had such an unusual approach to his music — it’s very soulful, and I’ve always gravitated toward that,” Cole said. As for singing with a musically idiosyncratic singer like Morrison, she said “it was just a matter of getting into his psyche and figuring out where he was going with his vocal.
“His vocals were so laid back, a little on the lazy side, that what I wanted to bring to it was an undertone of elegance — a coolness to it to complement what he was doing, and he loved that,” she said. “I just wanted to fit in with him.”
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