Van Morrison – What’s Wrong With This Picture

Van Morrison
What’s Wrong With This Picture
(Blue Note – 2003)
by Mark Ruffin

Picking up the new Van Morrison record and noticing the title, I thought I got the joke. What’s Wrong With This Picture; a big rock star on a legendary jazz label. That’s just what the jazz world needs, another aging rocker thinking jazz can retool the image.

As long as great jazz singers like Carmen Lundy and Jenna Mammina can’t even get on radio or major labels, I’m not one to support the faux-jazzers like Boz Scaggs, Barry Manilow, Jon Anderson and Rod Stewart coming our way. (And on another point, Rick Derringer should be ashamed of himself for taking the life out of his great rock tunes like Frankenstein and Rock And Roll Hoochie Coo and amputating them for smooth jazz.)

After stepping off my high horse, I thought, wait a minute, not even rockers accepted in the jazz world like Joni Mitchell and Carlos Santana have ever written a jazz standard. Even hard-core jazzers who have never heard of Van Morrison know his song, Moondance. It has been recorded by countless of artists and truly was a new standard before Herbie Hancock and Patricia Barber ushered in the era in the 90’s.

Seeing how Mr. Morrison might have the artistic wherewithal to make a decent jazz record, I picked it up and scan the back for song titles- just one standard, St. James Infirmary, everything else, originals. A big plus, because obviously the man’s not trying to sing jazz familiar tunes.

I put it in my Walkman.

I ran errands, ate at a restaurant, went to a bookstore and read a bit, came home and more than two hours later, I was still listening to these smoking tracks.

It is a great rock record. It does not show any pretense to capture any style or genre but the multi-layered and multi-faceted artistic genius that Morrison has shown throughout his long career. What a concept, an aging rock star makes a good rock record that exhibits growth and change.

And kudos to Blue Note. When many in our community were bitching and moaning about the success of Norah Jones, I wasn’t. I told as many folks who would listen that we all should be glad the Norah Jones phenomenon happened to Blue Note, because had it been Verve, Sony, or heaven forbid, RCA, those profits would have left the jazz division as quick as the stockholders could finalize the tally.

There’s no other big jazz company looking out for 21st century extensions of the jazz lexicon while totally nurturing the storied tradition of the music. Many companies are good with the latter part of that equation, but Blue Note’s record on taking chances with acid jazzers, d.j.’s, re-mixers, fusion heads, devotees of drum n’ bass and European lounge music is head and shoulders above the other majors.

I knew that Jones’ visibility would lead to better things. That’s why there’s a new Terrence Blanchard album, a new Jason Moran and a soon to be new Wynton Marsalis record. Jones’ breakout record and What’s Wrong With This Picture are part of the evolution of Blue Note becoming an adult record company, as well as the benchmark jazz artists try to attain. A very good thing considering very few other companies are signing anyone over 40.

The new Morrison record also really makes me look forward to the upcoming Anita Baker record on Blue Note. Baker will do fine being herself and not trying to become Sarah Vaughan.

It was thinking about Baker and remembering lines from Morrison’s disc that made me realize that maybe I didn’t get the joke to this album title.

On the very bluesy Fame, he wails that fame has taken everything and twisted it, and don’t believe all that old Andy Warhol stuff, it takes a lot more than ten or fifteen minutes, that’s just not enough to qualify you for fame. You went beyond the boundaries of sanity.

On the straight blues number, Goldfish Bowl, after his very Louis Jordanesque intro on saxophone, he emphatically states that I’m just a guy who sings songs. I’m not promoting no hit record. Yeah, I don’t have no t.v. show, and I have no reason to live in the Goldfish Bowl.

Maybe the joke had nothing to do with Blue Note after all. Like any good lyricist, maybe Morrison has scoped the landscape around him and the title commentary is aimed at his peers. Maybe he’s taking a jab at them, and What’s Wrong With This Picture is his remedy for their artistic ills. Don’t be something you’re not, and be good at what you do- make love to the art that brought you to the dance. Write and record good music that reflect the evolution of your music and to quote the title of the last song Morrison sings on his new record, Get On With The Show.